In Peoria, Illinois, renovation crews are sealing around windows after a $4 million remodeling project released asbestos fibers into the air in a local high school.
The problem was first identified in March, when students from six classrooms were temporarily relocated until tests could determine whether dust collecting around windows and on windowsills contained asbestos.
The move was prompted by teacher Dan Kerns, who paid for a test of the material himself and later informed some District 150 school officials that his test showed the definite presence of asbestos.
The testing, by Peoria Disposal Co., determined the level of asbestos contamination in samples was 5 percent, or well above the 1 percent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems “acceptable”.
This, the agency notes, is not the same as “safe”. In fact, in a 2001 assessment and statement, the EPA said: “Available evidence supports the conclusion that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.”
The school, which got its remodeling job in 2009, had already tested for asbestos both in October of 2009 and January of this year.
These tests, taken from samples provided by a local engineering firm specializing in environmental services, and examined by a lab in Chicago, showed only one of five samples containing asbestos, and that at levels “that did not require further action.”
However, presented with Kern’s information, the school district has agreed to retest, even though Peoria Disposal is reportedly no longer licensed as a certified health lab. The school was built in 1957.
The remodeling created four new classrooms, a new hallway, restroom upgrades and insulated windows, which according to District 150 Treasurer Pam Schau created a more airtight building, causing the dust to build up on windowsills due to a “vacuum effect” when doors are opened. Schau also said the Illinois Labor Department had also been notified about the problem and the testing.
Additional testing, conducted during Spring Break, is expected to be evaluated and the results returned the week after students return to classes. According to District 150 property management director Bruce Witzig, the dust is likely coming from a gap near the tops of the windows and the ceiling.
Crews have been directed to fill said gaps with caulk, and then asbestos remediation crews will again be called in to clean up the residue with specialized vacuums and filters, and sample the air one final time – the cost of which will likely be assumed by the contractors who performed the 2009 renovation.
Kerns, a communications teacher, says that parents should have been notified of the fact that students were exposed to asbestos. He also noted that complete cleanup of the heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) system – scheduled for Spring Break – will not actually be completed until some time in the summer, which may present additional dangers to students.
Asbestos, widely used up until the mid-1970s in building and insulative materials, is the source of asbestosis, a respiratory disease, as well as lung and digestive system cancers. It is also the only known cause of epithelial mesothelioma, a slow-acting but highly lethal form of cancer of the mesothelial tissues.
Mesothelioma, which can lie dormant for half a century, currently has no known cure. Those who acquire it from breathing asbestos fibers generally die within a year of being diagnosed.
Sources: Peoria Journal Star, Center for Grassroots Oversight