Recently, we brought you a story about asbestos concerns among students at the State University of New York’s New Paltz School, where asbestos abatement projects are being carried out on some of the residence halls (see “Asbestos Danger at SUNY” posted on 6 November). Despite reassurances by school spokesman Eric Gullickson to the contrary, it seems that the students indeed have cause to worry. It turns out that the asbestos abatement contractors hired to do the job have been cited for procedural violations seventeen times over the past three and a half years. Among the violations: <!–[if !supportLists]–>· <!–[endif]–>failure to have a proper license <!–[if !supportLists]–>· <!–[endif]–>failure to take proper air samples <!–[if !supportLists]–>· <!–[endif]–>failure to follow established asbestos abatement procedures <!–[if !supportLists]–>· <!–[endif]–>failure to provide workers with appropriate protective clothing Gullickson continues to dismiss these concerns, insisting that the violations are “minor.” He is quoted as saying: “If the Department of Labor thought there was a health and safety violation, they would have taken immediate action and shut the job down… these are technical violations.” Michael Heller doesn’t take it so lightly. Heller’s wife Cheryle discovered a lump in her abdomen in August 2003.
By November, she was dead at age 58. Cause: peritoneal mesothelioma, a disease of which the sole known and documented cause is asbestos exposure. Cheryle Heller was an elementary school teacher for 17 years; mesothelioma accounts for 3% of occupationally-related deaths among members of this profession. “Anyone who understands what asbestos can do would be very upset, not for minor violations, but for violations where workers or anyone could be exposed to asbestos,” Heller said, calling the situation “intolerable.” While New York State Safety and Health Inspector Peter Russo agrees with Gullickson, describing the violations as “garden variety, nothing very special,” Heller feels as if all the talk about violations is beside the point. He still grieves the loss of his wife and the fact that his grandchildren will never know their grandmother. He points out that the fact that the dangers of asbestos are far better known than they were when the late Mrs. Heller was exposed. “They all know that if these contractors are getting sloppy, come on, they need to be doing something else,” he said.