County officials try to ease worried Sussex parents High asbestos level closes down school

January 31, 1992|By Meredith Schlow Doug Birch of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

Sussex Elementary School students who may have been exposed to asbestos face "no immediate health hazard," Baltimore County school officials and Health Department doctors said yesterday.

"The risk to the children and the staff, I think we can say without equivocation, is extremely small," said Dr. Barbara McClean of the Health Department's Occupational Health Division. "I have never seen anyone with asbestosis who has minimal contact."

School officials conducted a news conference yesterday in an attempt to allay fears such as those expressed by Sussex Elementary parents at a meeting Wednesday night.

Sussex Elementary, located in the 500 block of Woodward Drive in Essex, was closed last Friday after tests revealed that the air in a kindergarten classroom had an asbestos level 30 times higher than was acceptable. Additional tests convinced school officials to close the 30-year-old building for repairs.

The testing and planning of repairs came after an asbestos expert noticed Jan. 21 that missing tiles in the kindergarten ceiling had exposed asbestos sprayed inside the roof and walls.

County schools are inspected visually every three years by such experts, certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Schools also are inspected by a custodian or maintenance person every six months, but they receive only a two-hour asbestos training course.

Since last Friday, calls from concerned parents have flooded school system offices and officials have clamored to ascertain the safety of other county schools.

School officials said yesterday that they were awaiting information from outside specialists on whether Sussex students would need monitoring and regular checks. Such tests usually take years to show results.

"There is no such thing as [an immediate] test that will show if you've been exposed" to asbestos, Dr. McLean said.

The question of who will be responsible for the medical costs cannot be answered unless monitoring and checks are recommended, officials said.

Asbestos fibers that lodge in the lungs remain in the body for a lifetime. While any level of exposure involves some health risk, experts believe that the more exposure, the higher the risk.

The mineral fiber can cause everything from minor respiratory complaints to often-fatal diseases such as miesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer.

The EPA has recommended that undamaged asbestos in buildings be left in place and periodically inspected, as is the case in county schools. The agency recommends removal only by qualified workers, and only when the asbestos is crumbling or disturbed by construction or demolition.

Dr. Patrick N. Breysse, an environmental engineer with the Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health, agrees. "We've learned from the last decade that we don't have the resources -- and it is not a wise use of resources -- just to go about and remove asbestos from buildings just because it is there," he said.

"We all have a finite risk of asbestos disease right now because we breathe asbestos in urban air," he said. "But people have done that calculation and essentially found that the risk is small enough that we don't have to worry about it."

Estimating how much more asbestos Sussex students might have been exposed to inside the school is important in assessing the risk, he said.

School officials admitted yesterday that determining the level of exposure would be impossible. However, they said it would be far below the levels and duration associated with people who develop asbestosis.

They also said that while they believe county schools to be safe, they cannot guarantee that the air in all schools is free of asbestos fibers.

"We can't guarantee anything," said Kiki Geis, a county schools environmental specialist. "You're exposed to asbestos from brake shoes as you stand at a traffic light."

Mr. Geis did say plans have been made to immediately test the schools temporarily housing the Sussex students.

However, officials acknowledged that testing the air for asbestos in schools is not a part of the county's asbestos-management plan. Such tests, even annually, would only give a "snapshot" of the amount of asbestos fibers floating around, they said.

They pointed to the air tests performed at Sussex, which over six consecutive days ranged from far below the acceptable level of asbestos to over 30 times that level. The dust varies depending on air circulation.

Richard L. Barranger, an assistant schools superintendent, said air at Sussex was stirred up with fans and leaf blowers last week before testing because "we wanted a worst-case scenario."

Officials also said accurate air tests would require samples from every room in every school -- 14,200 spaces and over 14 million square feet of buildings, said Keith D. Kelley, assistant superintendent for facilities. He estimated the minimum cost for just an initial air check at $4.25 million.

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