What’s asbestos and why is it so perilous?
SMALL EGG HARBOR – Asbestos and air quality concerns closed Pinelands Regional for three days so far this week, though a district official said the choice was “purely precautionary.”
The junior and senior high schools would be closed again Thursday, following their closure on Tuesday and Wednesday, Acting Superintendent Cheryl Stevenson announced late Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s related to the construction and it’s purely precautionary,” she said.
The school district is undergoing a massive roof renovation project. In August, contractor Kobithen Roofing Inc. removed asbestos-containing paper from roofing material from Pinelands High School. Asbestos is a group of minerals spun into small fibers for industrial use in products like insulation.
If airborne, the tiny fibers can be inhaled and remain in the lungs for long periods of time, leading to inflammation and, though rare, a type of cancer called mesothelioma, according to the National Cancer Institute. Learn more about this perilous material by watching the video above.
Stevenson said an environmental contractor was testing air quality in the schools for asbestos as well as volatile organic compounds.
The compounds are gases emitted from household products, such as paints and solvents, that can cause eye and nose irritation, headaches, nausea and in more severe cases cancer in animals and organ hurt, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We’re taking all the preliminary precautions that you would normally do in a construction process,” said Stevenson. “We had some concerns and we want to just verify that the building is safe for occupancy.”
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She announced Wednesday that asbestos tests performed this week were within federal and state limits – asbestos is regulated under the federal Clean Air Act. Because the final air quality report was not yet complete, the district would remain closed Thursday, Stevenson added.
“The health and safety of our students is paramount and we will reopen as soon as we have written verification from all test results that the school is safe for students and staff,” Stevenson said.
During the August asbestos removal, care was taken to keep the asbestos particles from entering the school because the areas of the roof’s metal support structure were perforated, according to a report from Epic Environmental Services LLC of Newfield. Plastic barricades were erected inside the school beneath the roofing to minimize contamination, according to Epic, which tested the school for asbestos in August and September. Kobithen Roofing also disposed of the roofing material in an approved disposal facility, according to Epic’s report.
Despite these efforts, asbestos contamination remained on top of the school according to reports.
Epic Environmental returned to the school in early September after being contacted about debris falling to the ground in four classrooms, 176, 177, 178 and 179.
In a Sept. 8 test, the company found that debris had collected on drop ceiling tiles in classrooms and hallways during the removal of the asbestos roofing, but that debris tested negative for asbestos, according to a Sept. 10 letter from Epic to school Business Administrator Stephen Brennan.
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But, debris on top of the roof did contain asbestos, according to the letter.
“At this time, it is assumed that the cleaning of the entire roof in the areas containing asbestos was incomplete, and small amounts of asbestos roofing remain in the flutes (gaps between ribbing in the roofing),” Epic Environmental wrote in its Sept. 10 letter.
Yet no asbestos was found in debris and air samples collected below the roofing, according to the environmental company.
“Based on this evidence, there is no evidence that either the asbestos removal activities or the newly learned issue have impacted the air quality in the school, and that airborne asbestos contamination is not present in the school,” Epic Environmental wrote in its report. “But, there is asbestos containing debris remaining on the roof deck, and it must be removed.”
Unless fixed, holes in the perforated support structure could allow roofing debris to get into the school and classrooms while construction is underway, the company wrote.
In early September, Epic Environmental recommended all work on the roof stop until the situation could be fixed. The company also recommended routine air sampling for asbestos and total dust in school areas below the asbestos roof area.
Stevenson, who is acting in place of Interim Superintendent Maryann Banks this week, said she did know not many details of the roof repair work and declined to answer specific questions about the project.
She said she knew of no students or staff who had been made ill by the air quality.
The district would provide transportation on Thursday to part-time and full-time vocational students as well and students who attended non-public school or out-of-district facilities. Athletic events and practices would be held, but students were limited to locker room areas and outside fields.
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Amanda Oglesby: 732-557-5701; aoglesby@GannettNJ.com
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