Sussex asbestos risk is called minimal School officials try to allay parents' fears, concerns.

January 31, 1992|By Meredith Schlow Doug Birch of 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 have said.

"The risk to the children and the staff, I think we can say without equivocation, is extremely small," yesterday said Dr. Barbara McClean of the county 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, 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 is 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, who are 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.

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 life. 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.

School officials admitted yesterday that determining the level of exposure of students at Sussex 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.

School 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."

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.

Since the asbestos-management program was established in 1989, Baltimore County schools have spent more than $2.4 million on asbestos removal. More than $1 million has been designated for the current school year, Mr. Kelley said. A complete abatement of all county schools would cost more than $500 million.

Of the 147 schools in Baltimore County, only three -- Dundalk Elementary, Golden Ring Middle and the new Joppa View Elementary -- are considered "asbestos-free," Mr. Kelley said. The new Seven Oaks Elementary School will join that list when it opens in September.

Though many Sussex parents said Wednesday they would keep their children out of school until air tests were completed, the school said that attendance yesterday was normal at 91 percent.

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