Roundup: Asbestos in Schools

In Billings, Montana, a Bridger high school teacher was sentenced to one year of probation for making special education students pick up floor tiles containing asbestos without proper protection. The retired teacher, Randal J. Ecker, pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Air Act for his negligence in not sending a form to the Environmental Protection Agency in order to notify them of the asbestos removal in 2003. Plans had been approved for the school’s renovation in 2003, but the removal of the floor tiles was not included. Ecker claims that he received permission to have his students pick up more than 100 feet of the tile. The superintendent who approved the measure was unaware that the tiles were laden with asbestos. Ecker’s students wore clothing to protect them during the removal, but they did not wear masks or respirators designed to filter out asbestos dust. The recovered tiles were placed in garbage bins in the school, a violation of asbestos disposal laws and regulations. The district paid the parents of each of the five students $251,000 after the parents sued the Bridger School District in 2005. According to the defense attorney, Jay Lansing, Ecker “had no prior experience with asbestos and did not even know what asbestos looked like”. In Gallatin, Tennessee, 21 buildings tested positive for asbestos, of which 19 were schools.

There are a total of 43 schools in Sumner County and the 19 with asbestos account for nearly half of them. Parents and staff are concerned since inhalation of asbestos fibers has been linked to the development of mesothelioma , asbestosis , and other lung ailments. These diseases, however, have a 10 to 20 year latency period , so those affected will not know until decades in the future. Prevention of the deadly cancer mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases is based solely upon avoiding exposure to asbestos . The source of the asbestos in the school buildings was in the glue holding down the floor tiles. According to school officials, the only problem with asbestos is if it is ground up or damaged and breathed in as a dust. A spokesman for Sumner County Schools, Jeremy Johnson, said that the schools have not had any problems reported and they have passed state inspections every year for the last 21 years. The risk to the students is minimal, according to Johnson. Parents are still dubious, and the district is working in some schools to remove the asbestos. Four Sumner county schools had their asbestos containing floor tiles removed over the past summer.