Asbestos Scare in Essex

February 04, 1992

Parents of the children at Sussex Elementary School in Essex are understandably worried. Late last month, officials closed the school after finding levels of asbestos fiber in a kindergarten classroom that were 30 times the amount considered acceptable. School officials' repeated attempts to allay fears are of little consolation: Parents, who know that related health problems do not show up for decades, have no idea whether their children were exposed to asbestos fibers and, if so, how much. Some have gone so far as to keep their children out of the schools to which they transferred while abatement proceeds at Sussex.

This is an overreaction, but it is nurtured in a legitimate concern about the effectiveness of Baltimore County's asbestos inspection program. Though county public schools are inspected every three years by an asbestos expert certified by the Environmental Protection Agency, no air monitoring is done.

Part of the reason is efficiency and cost. Accurate air quality tests would require testing every room in every school. The tab for initial readings would top $4.25 million. Given that asbestos is only a danger when it is crumbling or disturbed, that might not be the most cost-effective way to spend tax dollars. Neither would a top-to-bottom abatement program, which would cost more than half-a-billion dollars.

Nonetheless, the Sussex School scare is sufficient proof that the county needs a better system. Visual checks by experts every three years are insufficient because by the time flaking and crumbling asbestos is visible, the damage often has been done. In the long interim between visits by EPA-approved inspectors, school custodians or maintenance people make semi-annual inspections, which are also visual. But they receive only a routine, two-hour training course.

Obviously, sending out uncertified inspectors, and too infrequently to boot, is going to increase the odds of a problem like that which occurred at the Sussex Elementary School. Cost is, of course, a consideration. But from both a social and a fiscal perspective, it would be far more prudent for the county to invest in a training program to give the custodians and maintenance workers the kind of education required for certification, and then to make sure that they conduct asbestos inspections more frequently.

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