NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- The New York State Department of Labor Asbestos Control Bureau is investigating an asbestos exposure incident at the George M. Davis Elementary School which occurred late last month. The New York State Education Department has confirmed they are aware of the incident and investigating as well.
The twin investigations were initiated based on reporting by Talk of the Sound which received information from several sources that asbestos tiles and material may have been improperly handled and disposed of illegally.
Asbestos exposure can be fatal, causing serious lung damage.
According to Asbestos.com, schools have been a special focus of asbestos regulation.
Approximately half of all schools in the United States were built between 1950 and 1969 – peak years for asbestos use in construction. Exposure to airborne asbestos dust can lead to fatal illnesses, including mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer.
There are a growing number of cases of teachers and adult school workers who have asbestos-related diseases because of exposure in their schools. One study from the National Center for Health Statistics listed elementary school teachers as a high risk occupation for developing mesothelioma, attributing 2.1 percent of all elementary school teacher deaths to the cancer.
For that reason, asbestos is heavily-regulated:
In 1982, a mandatory program was instituted by the EPA, requiring educational agencies to:
- inspect schools for all friable materials which might contain asbestos
- identify found samples using the technology of polarized light microscopy (PLM)
- notify teachers, parents and other locally affected groups of potential exposure
In 1984, Congress passed the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act, which created a program to provide schools with the necessary expertise, technical assistance and financial resources to “ascertain the extent of danger to the health of students and staff from asbestos materials in schools.”
In 1986, Congress passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) as part of the Toxic Substances Control Act, to protect school children and school employees from exposure to asbestos in school buildings.
Administration officials, speaking on background, have confirmed that teachers, parents and visitors were not notified of potential exposure.
Erik Lutzer of the New York State Department of Labor Asbestos Control Bureau, the state official responsible for asbestos issues in Westchester and New York City explained what was supposed to happen when a school is dealing with a possible asbestos issue.
"Many schools have a licensed asbestos consultant available," said Lutzer. "They are called in to conduct testing."
Lutzer explained then if asbestos is found, the first step is to close off the area and bring in a licensed asbestos contractor to seal off or "tent" the area. Air samples are taken. The area is decontaminated and abated by licensed asbestos contractors wearing hazardous material suits operating with exhaust hoses. Air monitoring is done during and after work is completed.
According to sources familiar with the incident at Davis School, this did not happen.
Employees of George Wood Plumbing, a school district contractor well-known to Talk of the Sound readers, were hired to replace flooring in two school offices starting with the office of incoming Principal Michael Galland.
The plan was to remove the carpeting, clean the floor and prepare the floor to lay tiles in Galland's office on Tuesday July 16th. The tiles were to be laid on Wednesday July 17th and the carpeting removed in a nearby office and that office prepped to lay tiles. Galland was to be moved back into his office on Thursday and the tile work completed in the other office that same day.
After some unrelated delays, the workers from George Wood Plumbing pulled back the carpeting in Galland's office and discovered what they believed to be asbestos tiles stuck to the carpeting and on the floor. The work stopped and George Wood Plumbing called John Gallagher Director of Buildings & Grounds for the City School District of New Rochelle.
Despite the title, Gallagher is not a school district employee but rather a consultant who works for Aramark a multi-billion dollar services company based in Philadelphia with revenues of over $13 billion.
Gallagher instructed George Wood Plumbing to proceed with the work despite the possible presence of asbestos, sources say.
Once removed, the carpeting, tiles and debris was rolled up, placed in heavy plastic bags, removed from the office. Some material was loaded onto a district garbage truck and illegally dumped. The rest was hidden in a closet.
The building was not evacuated while the work was done, the effected area was not not properly sealed before work began and air monitoring was not done while the work was in progress.
Sources differ on the exact day but in the days after the work was done on Galland's office, an asbestos abatement company was contacted to properly abate the second office after a school district employee complained. The second office was sealed off and the asbestos removal done in accordance with state and federal law.
This is where things get a bit tricky.
According to the New York State Department of Education, New Rochelle school officials have since claimed to have done all of the work by the book from the beginning.
"School officials have informed us that they had proper manifests on the removal and appropriate air monitoring was performed by an independent third party," said Antonia Valentine, a spokesperson for the New York State Department of Education.
This appears not to be the case.
Sources tell Talk of the Sound that in order to mask the disposal of the asbestos material from the first office that had been stored in a closet the material was co-mingled with the asbestos material from the second office.
All sources agree that three air monitoring units were installed on Saturday July 20th, four days after the asbestos was removed from the first office.
One school official, speaking on background, told Talk of the Sound the air monitoring tests came back "clean".
The tiles were sent out to be tested to confirm they are made from asbestos.
State Education officials plan to review paperwork provided by the district.
"SED has been in contact with the school and we have requested documentation," said Valentine. "We are currently working with the school and the NYS Department of Labor which oversees asbestos projects to determine that the asbestos removal was done properly."
Contacted later that day, the head of the New York City Region Asbestos Control Bureau, Mr. Lutzer disputed the SED's account.
"I don't know who they (SED) are dealing with but we have no record of this," said Lutzer. Based on our call to Lutzer, the Asbestos Control Bureau opened an investigation on July 31st. Lutzer was at Davis earlier today, according to one knowledgeable source.
One school district employee, concerned that he was exposed to asbestos, reportedly took photographs documenting the improper removal and disposal of the asbestos and carpeting with asbestos tiles stuck to the carpet.
Gallagher and Wood are both said to be aware that photographs exist and are deeply concerned about the implications for them if they are determined by New York State officials to have violated state and federal law and recklessly exposed students, staff and visitors at a public school to asbestos.