Alaska High School Uncovers Potential Asbestos

In Alaska, an extensive summer renovation project aimed at insuring a facility that is attractive, safe, comfortable and energy efficient has run into a snag that has temporarily halted work and may cost the district more money.

The project, at Unalaska High School in the Unalaska City School district, involves structural upgrades, expansion of the school’s kitchen, replacement of exterior door and windows, efficiency upgrades to interior and exterior lighting, new carpet, and regrouting of all tile flooring.

Less than two weeks into the project, construction workers found a black mastic near the library and in the smaller of two gymnasiums. The mastic is typically associated with asbestos.

Asbestos, a mineral found in rock formations, was mined and widely used during the first half of the last century in insulative products, floor and ceiling tiles and mastics, weatherstripping caulk, roofing shingles and tiles, and even oven mitts and ironing board covers.

In 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, limited its use to one percent by volume, or weight, although this was never considered to be a health-based standard. In 1990, under the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), the EPA ruled that asbestos waste testing had to be conducted by transmission electron microscopy, or TEM, since polarized light microscopy, or PLM, was less definitive.

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that, when ingested or inhaled, can get into the lungs or digestive tract, where the microscopic fibers remain for a lifetime, sometimes setting up allergic-type reactions that lead to lesions. This can cause anything from asbestosis, a respiratory disease, to respiratory and digestive-system cancers, including mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is cancer of the mesothelial tissue that lines the chest and abdomen, and in its most common and serious form, pleural mesothelioma, leads to death, usually within a year of diagnosis. There is no cure for mesothelioma, and even radical treatments like surgery are commonly unsuccessful because mesothelioma is one of the “silent killers”, remaining dormant until tumors are so well advanced they have invaded essential organs like the heart and lungs.

In Unalaska, the work has been halted until the mastic can be sampled for asbestos. Fortunately, no students and few staff were present, and preliminary testing shows no danger, according to Superintendent John Conwell.

Unfortunately, previous testing certified the school as asbestos free, and this highlights a concern first uncovered by the New York Times newspaper in 1993, which demonstrated that – at least in New York schools – the process of asbestos testing was frequently subject to fraud, reporting errors and negligence, in spite of a 1986 EPA law – the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, or AHERA – that was designed to curb precisely such abuses and errors in reporting asbestos in schools.

Since the mastic at Unalaska was not disturbed after discovery, chances are good workers were not exposed. Exterior construction and renovations continue on schedule, but nothing more can be done inside the building until testing is complete and the school given the all-clear to proceed. According to Unalaska Director of Public Works Nancy Peterson, this should be within the week.

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