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Construction workers at George Washington Senior High School in Cedar Rapids failed to meet asbestos removal regulations. As a result, fibers from the hazardous material became airborne and now the school is closed for further abatement and testing.
According to the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s Manger of Buildings and Grounds Rob Kleinsmith, construction was occurring to finish the third and final year of replacing the school’s heating and ventilation system when the asbestos was discovered.
Environmental Program Supervisor in the Department of Natural Resources’ Air Quality Bureau Brian Hutchins, said, “The material isn’t a health risk as long as it’s properly contained.”
Currently, laws do not exist to mandate removal of all asbestos from schools, but each school should have a management plan in case the toxic mineral becomes damaged and no longer contained. By law, parents can review the management plan in place and if no action is taken to correct the situation soon, the local U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should be notified immediately.
And, as a result of Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) established in the 1980s by the EPA, all management plans must be updated and new inspections are to occur periodically in order to decide if the discovered asbestos should be left as is, encapsulated, or removed by an asbestos abatement professional.
“The district has known about the asbestos in the building, and in most Cedar Rapids schools,” Kleinsmith said. Legally, the construction contractors and school district are to be held responsible for meeting federal asbestos removal regulations.
With asbestos in a school, students aren’t the only factor to consider. In a 1999-2001 study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a substantially elevated rate of mesothelioma cancer was found amongst teachers where the only known exposure for each participant was on the job.
Supposedly, previous air tests of the school’s hallways have not always shown such high levels of asbestos, but, according to Department of Natural Resources Environmental Specialist Tom Wuehr, Shive-Hattery, Inc. performed one air sample test and reported asbestos fiber levels above the regulated amount outside the area where it was supposed to be contained.
“Someone did something incorrectly,” saud Wueh. “These are highly regulated processes…somewhere along the line, regulations were not being followed.”
Any asbestos exposure could cause mesothelioma cancer. The U.S. government issued warnings in the 1970s about exposure to this toxic mineral, but many older public buildings, including schools, still contain it. Asbestos insulation, asbestos floor ceiling and tiling, and many other building products made use of the mineral due to its strong heat and fire resistant properties.
“We know there’s asbestos in the air, and we know that there were people in there,” Wuehr said regarding whether the workers had been exposed. “One would assume that there was inhalation of asbestos fibers.”