At the end of the 2008-09 school year, workers at Hurt Park Elementary School in Roanoke, Virginia, began removing carpet in an effort to upgrade the school and turned up old, asbestos-laden floor tiles underneath.
Workers, focused on the asbestos floor tile, rolled the carpet and loaded it into a truck bound for the local landfill, presumably never realizing that it, too, was an environmental hazard. Then they started on the tile.
It might have gone unnoticed, had not a compliance officer from the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry shown up. Not too long after, the truck returned to the school and the carpet was put in storage until a licensed asbestos remediation firm could be contacted to complete the upgrades, as the compliance officer recommended. The visit by the compliance officer was likely triggered by a complaint, according to Dept. of Labor spokeswoman Jennifer Wester.
The attempted carpet disposal, however, triggered an investigation by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, and the following Monday, a designated contractor had filed a building permit with the city to remove floor tiles throughout the school at an estimated cost of $45,000.
The investigation will study whether the Roanoke County Public School District complied with environmental regulations for asbestos removal established by the state, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the National Emission Standard for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) regulations, and the EPA’s Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, or AHERA, which governs asbestos in schools. Such an investigation could take months, officials noted.
Hurt Park Elementary School, built in 1961, likely contains significant amounts of asbestos, which was used through the first three-quarters of the last century in insulation, floor and ceiling tiles, acoustical ceiling sprays, tile adhesives and weatherstripping grout.
In 1989, the EPA ruled that American manufacturers could use no more than one percent asbestos (by volume) in products, eliminating many of the dangers. However, foreign products are not regulated, and America’s aging schools and public buildings contain large amounts of (sometimes undocumented) asbestos.
If it left undisturbed, asbestos is fairly harmless. When broken, however, it releases microscopic fibers that can get into airways, or be swallowed. From there, it migrates to the respiratory or digestive system, and can never be removed, even by the body’s natural filtering processes. On occasion, asbestos can cause diseases like asbestosis (a respiratory ailment) and respiratory or digestive system cancers.
The most dangerous of these, pleural mesothelioma, attacks the mesothelial lining of the lungs and – after lying dormant for three or more decades – turns into such a virulent form of cancer that patients are seldom given more than a year to live.
Hurt Park Elementary clearly did not have an AHERA asbestos plan, which requires an assessment every three years; a management plan communicated to parents, staff, school workers and officials; a yearly notification of such a plan and a contact person, periodic surveillance; and training to maintenance and custodial staff on the proper handling of asbestos. Curt Baker, the school system’s deputy superintendent for operations, said it was unclear if a permit was needed if work was being done by school employees.
The Virginia DEQ has said that school employees who may have been harmed by asbestos exposure will get needed medical attention.
Sources: Roanoke Times, EPA