Asbestos in Yet Another School … or Not?

On Monday, April 28, 2008 , parents at the North Kossuth Elementary School in Bancroft , Iowa , were alarmed by an announcement that the school would be closing due to asbestos contamination. The news, which was widely reported in local radio, television and print media, followed an air quality test that showed asbestos fiber levels up to 1,000 times the safe level in one hallway, and 10 times the safe levels in one classroom.
Superintendent Mike Landstrum ordered the closure of the school immediately following the results of the test, and announced the school’s 145 students would complete the school year in nearby Swea City schools. The North Kossuth school was previously known to have an asbestos problem, resulting in the removal and abatement of asbestos in half of the school building. However, a second, more precise, test performed two days later after students had evacuated the building showed no asbestos in the air. The puzzling difference in the test results may be explained by the fact that the first test was a PCM test, which detects airborne fibers of any type, not just asbestos. The second, more discriminating, test did not show the presence of asbestos fibers in any significant amounts. (Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral and thus there are generally a few asbestos fibers in any random air sample.)

There was initial speculation by school officials that the absence of students moving around in the buildings may have accounted for the difference in fiber levels, but by May 1, after an extensive cleanup of the school environment with wet wiping and HEPA vacuums, the school district announced tentative plans to re-open the schools and return students to their regular classrooms. A third test, scheduled for May 5, would be the determining factor in the decision, said Landstrum in a letter sent to parents: “If everything is OK as we expect, we will return to the building with students on Tuesday, May 6. If the results would come back with an air-quality limit above .01, we will start school in Swea City on Wednesday, May 7. The PK-2 grades would be housed at the Lutheran Church while grades 3-5 would have rooms at the Swea City center.” The brief asbestos scare led the school board to plan a permanent move of the elementary grades to a building in Swea City for the next school year; it is not known whether a clear test result on Monday would result in a reversal of that decision.