Student Newspaper and Teacher Document Asbestos in Indiana School

MUNCIE – On April 17, 2009, that Friday’s edition of Muncie’s Central High School student newspaper, the Munsonian, featured the headline: “Questions Persist over Air Quality.” The story caused quite a stir amongst school officials, teachers, students, and parents due to the fact that the story confirmed the presence of asbestos – a known cancer causing agent – at numerous locations within the school.

According to the Munsonian article, samples taken from an art and separate science classroom had both tested positive for the presence of asbestos. The high school’s Principal, Christopher Smith, responded immediately to the article by contacting students and parents through written communications, speaking with them on the phone, and issuing several announcements on the school’s public address system.

In his various communications to students and parents, Smith has accused a student journalist, as well as one of the boy’s teachers, of “the unauthorized disturbance of encapsulated asbestos,” as quoted from one of Smith’s written communications. Smith’s letter goes on to state that, “Two classrooms were involved in the unauthorized sampling of encapsulated asbestos. As a safety precaution, the two classrooms have been closed until independent asbestos contractors can be retained to clean the classrooms and encapsulate asbestos where needed.”

Asbestos has been prized and used by mankind for thousands of years. The naturally occurring silicate mineral had been admired by the ancients because of its ability to withstand damage from fire, and 19th and 20th century manufacturers also appreciated the excellent electrical and thermal insulating properties of asbestos, its resistance to harsh chemical corrosives and more. Because of the many admirable properties of asbestos, the mineral found its way into dozens of products – including building materials that are quite prevalent in the nation’s schools.

In the early 1970s, experts confirmed the fact that some exposure to asbestos posed a dire risk to human health. When crushed or fractured, microscopic asbestos fibers can become airborne and inhaled into the lungs where, up to 50 years later, they can lead to respiratory diseases such as the feared lung cancer killer known as malignant pleural mesothelioma. Small wonder the Munsonian article has caused such an outcry of concern related to the presence of asbestos in the school’s classrooms and elsewhere.

School officials admit that asbestos exists in the school, but claim that it’s all safely encapsulated – officials also point out that there are plans for asbestos abatement procedures to be carried out as time goes on. Lon Sloan, Director of Facilities, when asked about the samples taken, said, “I wish they had called the superintendent to have it checked for them instead of doing it themselves. The whole idea is to keep people away from asbestos.” Sloan had been referring to Munsonian design editor Brett Cummings and Terry Nelson, a teacher and newspaper advisor, both of whom had, allegedly, moved ceiling tiles to obtain their samples.

In addition to asbestos in the classrooms and other area ceiling tiles, the Munsonian article also raised concerns about the presence of asbestos in the school’s floor tile adhesive. Because of these concerns, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) sent inspectors to the school to obtain samples of the adhesive, and the results of their analysis will be available next week. In the meantime, many students and parents are wondering why the classrooms were closed merely because some ceiling tiles had been moved. If such an action posed such great danger – the question has been asked – why are the tiles not permanently removed in light of the fact that students and teachers inadvertently or intentionally move ceiling tiles all the time?

School officials have yet to respond to the above question, and have only stated that the classrooms will reopen once they have the result of air quality tests that were recently performed in the affected areas.

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