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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, December 9, 2004

Asbestos found in school

By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Education Writer

King Intermediate School has closed two classroom buildings and a portable after asbestos was found in two classrooms during an exterior painting project.

King Intermediate School's Buildings G, left, and I were closed after an asbestos hazard was detected in the exterior paint.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

The buildings will be cleaned during winter recess and will not be reopened until asbestos dust can no longer be detected.

In the meantime, classes will be moved to vacant classrooms and the library.

Principal Cynthia Chun, who has requested that all buildings be tested for asbestos, said finding the toxic dust under the paint came as a surprise, since it is usually not found on the exterior of buildings.

However, asbestos can be found in many Hawai'i schools because so many building products contained the material, health and education officials said yesterday.

But "just because they have asbestos is not a reason to be alarmed," said Glenn Tatsuno, DOE administrator for safety and security. "It's when it starts to chalk up, splinter and break apart, that is when you have to be concerned."

Advice for parents

• Concerned parents are advised to check with their pediatricians.

• An informational meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at King Intermediate School.

Asbestos, used commonly in insulation and fireproofing material until the 1970s, can cause cancer and other diseases when inhaled. While it is still present in most schools and office buildings, it does not pose a threat as long as it is contained.

"There's asbestos materials in floor tiles, popcorn ceilings and drywall. We're living in and around it constantly," said Tom Lilekis, an environmental health specialist for the Department of Health. "It doesn't pose a health hazard until you disturb it and get it airborne by grinding or pulverizing the materials."

Most of the data on asbestos-related illness comes from shipyard workers, miners and others who worked for long periods with heavy amounts of pure asbestos, Lilekis said, so it is unclear whether those at the school will be affected by this exposure. Health problems generally take more than 20 years to occur.

Susan Montgomery said her 12-year-old daughter had classes in two of the buildings that tested positive for asbestos, Building I and Building G, both of which are off-limits to students and cordoned off.

"I'm concerned for the health of my daughter," Montgomery said, adding that she will consult with her daughter's doctor at an appointment later this month.

Reading teacher Geraldine Best raised the alarm about the work when she noticed that construction workers were wearing safety suits and respirators while preparing the building for painting.

When they proceeded to disperse the dust with blowers, she called the Department of Health and her union.

"They're sitting in protective gear and we're sitting in the classrooms not being protected and that picture did not compute," she said.

The work was stopped on Nov. 4 and asbestos was detected in Best's classroom shortly after.

"I was flabbergasted. I was really frightened," she said. "It's a health and safety issue for all the students and adults alike."

She has visited her physician, who is having her take a chest X-ray and a lung capacity test.

Principal Chun said school officials didn't know there was asbestos under the paint.

"It was assumed there was lead," she said. "However, we were assuming it wasn't a hazard. Ironically the levels of lead were very minimal and it technically is not considered lead-containing paint."

School officials had wanted the painting work to be done while the kids were on break, but when that could not be accommodated, they were assured by the contractors there was no risk, said Chun.

"If we knew that there would be a problem, we would have just relocated because we have the capability to do that," she said.

But a representative for paint removal contractor BENDCO said he did not tell the principal that, and the general contractor said he doubts he made such a statement.

"I don't recall saying there's no risk because the project has lead paint," said Arnaldo Jorge, project supervisor for 57 Builders.

Every school across the country has an asbestos management plan that requires schools to inspect for asbestos and do six-month periodic surveillance in case any of the material sustains damage. Any time asbestos-containing materials are removed, the work has to be documented and the air checked before reoccupation.

However, "the exterior is not included in the management plan," Lilekis said, which is why the asbestos was a surprise. In fact, samples taken from other parts of the building's exterior tested negative for asbestos.

Concerned parents should check with their pediatricians, Lilekis said. They can also attend an informational meeting at the school on Monday.

"Since we've known about this, the DOE, the contractors and the DOH have done everything we can — we believe we've done everything correctly — in trying to take it from that point forward with sealing off the buildings and relocating the children," Lilekis said.

The DOE's Tatsuno said asbestos also was in the cement, which is uncommon, and the school will have to evaluate what it will do about the situation after the present problem is dealt with.

Staff writer Eloise Aguiar contributed to this report. Reach Treena Shapiro at tshapiro@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8014.