Calming down Essex

March 03, 1992

Parents of Sussex Elementary School students, particularly a vocal minority among them, should calm down. After routine asbestos tests at the Essex school registered 40 times more asbestos material in the air than expected, school officials reacted admirably. Administrators closed the school and found five other sites to send the students.

Yet it is understandable that parents would be deeply concerned about the health of their children. Asbestos, an insulation material much used until 10 to 20 years ago, can cause cancer if an individual receives high exposure to the material over a long period of time.

With Sussex Elementary closed barely a month, no one knows yet how long people at the school were exposed or at what levels. A professor from the University of Maryland Medical School told an assembly of parents recently that with six months of exposure at the highest contamination levels measured at the school, 10 in a million children might contract cancer. Those are good odds, but alarmed parents took no comfort.

Still, far greater cancer risks surround these children in Essex and elsewhere. A physician at the assembly suggested that parents quit smoking to lessen the threat to their offspring of second-hand smoke inhalation. Many tongues clucked in the audience, but the doctor had a valid point.

What about other cancer risks? How many parents have taken the precautionary step of performing $50 radon tests to measure natural cancer-causing radioactive gas that can seep into houses from certain soils? Have any of them acted to prevent their kids from breathing in fumes while pumping gas? Or from living near a transformer? The dangers can be anywhere. The director of respiratory care at Franklin Square Hospital said one patient got mesothelioma, the cancer that asbestos causes in lungs, because for years she laundered the work clothes of her steel-worker spouse.

Parents need to stop inflaming the situation. School health officials have had to suggest psychological counseling for some Sussex pupils because parents can't contain their angst and play a calming role. A troubling situation is being made far worse by the unreasoning antics of these parents.

Sussex parents need to educate themselves about asbestos and acquaint themselves with the facts -- not the rumors and innuendoes. Baltimore County educators immediately removed school children from a potentially dangerous environment. Now they are going to take remedial action to fix up the school so that it is free of this one potential hazard. That's all any parent can ask.

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