“I love teaching the kids, seeing their eyes light up when they learn something. But it has to be done in a safe environment.” -- Darwin Greenwell
For five months at Washington Elementary School in Berkeley, children attended cooking classes and music classes in a classroom that may have exposed them to dangerous asbestos. This hazard was verified by Cal/OSHA (California Division of Occupational Safety and Health) in late June 2010, and the room was closed down.
However, administrators at Washington Elementary and at the district level apparently had been notified about the danger in late January. The classroom’s condition was reported at that time to administrative authorities by Darwin Greenwell, one of the teachers conducting music classes in the room. Greenwell has taught in the Berkeley Unified School District for the past five years. Like many of the district’s music teachers, he teaches at several elementary schools during a single school year, and this past year one of them was Washington Elementary, where Greenwell taught brass (trumpet and trombone) to fourth- and fifth-graders. His classes met twice a week, for 45 minute sessions.
One morning, in late January, Greenwell entered the classroom and found that all the carpet runners, which previously had completely covered a long linoleum seam on the floor, had been removed. The linoleum seam had come apart, exposing floor tiles in a quite deteriorated state. In subsequent months, until the end of the school year, several of these runners were intermittently brought back into the room to cover a part of the exposed seam.
Greenwell was not the only teacher in the classroom who noted the condition of the floor and the carpet runners. A cooking teacher in this classroom confirmed that carpet runners had been removed from the floor early in 2010. Another music teacher in the room told the Planet that “the rugs were very dirty and dusty. The kids sat on the floor for music and they constantly pulled the loose threads. When they danced they would raise the dust."
Greenwell was better prepared, however, than other teachers to recognize a possible hazard. It struck Greenwell, who has many years of experience in construction and is a licensed California real estate broker as well as a teacher, that the dusty tiles, which were shredded into fragments, partially pulverized, and loose, were probably made of asbestos and therefore unsafe. “I gave it an 85 to 95% chance of being asbestos tiles,” said Greenwell, “because I have removed this exact same kind of tile in my own family’s properties, and it almost always tested positive for asbestos.” Inhalation of airborne asbestos has been proven to cause respiratory illness and cancer.
A video of the exposed asbestos is available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_IhtUWrp4A&feature=player_embedded#!
The adjacent photographs were taken by Greenwell in late June.
The Environmental Protection Agency defines a “friable” material as a material that “ when dry, may be crumbled, pulverized, or reduced to powder by hand pressure ” and deems friable asbestos hazardous. Greenwell recognized the exposed, shredded floor tiles as friable, and thus dangerous if composed of asbestos.
All public school districts are required by the EPA's Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, which became law in 1986, to monitor carefully all school premises to detect possible asbestos contamination. The regulations require, for example, that local education agencies “provide custodial staff with asbestos-awareness training.” The bungalow classrooms at Washington Elementary are cleaned regularly by the school’s custodial staff. Why did no one report the asbestos problem to administrative authorities?
According to Muriel Waller, an environmental expert who has managed environmental oversight and remediation projects under contract to US military agencies, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories, the Port of Oakland, and other government organizations, it is not entirely surprising that a local school district would fail to recognize an asbestos problem. "When the danger of asbestos was publicized back in the 70's, it was likened to the devil,” said Waller. “There was removal of intact asbestos—which sometimes increased the danger—and even of asbestos underground. Today the pendulum seems to have swung in the other direction, and asbestos hazards are not given the attention they call for."
Greenwell, on the other hand, was not disposed to overlook the shredded tiles in the classroom. He told the Planet that his grandfather was a machinist who died of occupational lung cancer and that his uncle has been a professional “asbestos abater,” someone who is called in to seal off or remove exposed asbestos, for more than 25 years. “You better believe my family knows asbestos,” said Greenwell. “I learned this stuff, by osmosis from my uncle and from my own experience, over the years. When you see this kind of thing, you take a sample from an inconspicuous area and you have it tested.”
This particular room at the school serves multiple purposes. This past year it was not only the location of Greenwell’s music classes, but also of cooking classes. The shredded floor tile was three feet way from the sink and the shelf of cooking pots, pans and utensils on one side, and three feet away from the food storage and preparation tables on the other side.
Greenwell said that “The brass instruments that I teach require the children to bring a lot of air into their lungs, and it’s unacceptable if the air I’m asking them to breathe contains asbestos. Nor is it OK, in cooking classes, if children are eating food laced with asbestos particles.” Greenwell added that it would be easy for a child sitting on the floor to pick up a small fragment of tile, put it into his or her mouth, and swallow.
Asbestos, which enters the body through inhalation or food ingestion, is notorious for leading to asbestosis and mesothelioma, a form of cancer that affects the lungs, stomach, colon, or heart. The disease is often difficult to diagnose, but once it has been detected, it is one of the most painful and fatal cancers, usually leading to death within 12 to 18 months.
“I do not think there are any safe levels of friable asbestos exposure for children,” said Waller. “Childhood exposure to asbestos is particularly concerning because of the nature of asbestos-related diseases. Most of them have a very long latency period. Mesothelioma can take up to 60 years to develop. A middle-aged adult exposed to asbestos may never be diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos cancer simply because he does not live long enough for the disease to develop, but children have a long lifespan ahead of them. It is important therefore to avoid early asbestos exposure.”
Greenwell said that when the carpet runners were lifted from the floor, revealing the tile fragments possibly containing asbestos, he contacted the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), speaking with officials first in Oakland and then in Sacramento. Greenwell said that he also reported this situation to his immediate BUSD supervisor, Suzanne McCulloch. She in turn recommended that he bring the matter to the attention of Washington Elementary School Principal, Rita Kimball, which Greenwell says he did. (McCulloch told the Planet that she did not remember whether she spoke with Greenwell, and added that when a teacher brings a facilities problem to her attention, she advises the teacher to contact the principal.)
Greenwell said that he also spoke with the Superintendent’s office on one occasion and wrote two letters to the Superintendent about the possible asbestos hazard. But, Greenwell continued, no action was taken by any of these authorities. Finally, according to Greenwell, he was told by the Executive Assistant for the Superintendent on May 14, 2010 that “This situation is not the Superintendent’s responsibility. You will need to file a work order.” Greenwell found this response inadequate. It had been his experience in the school district, he said, that the processing of a work order takes a long time, whereas the shredded floor tiling called for remediation right away.
Cal/OSHA spokeswoman Krisann Chasarik told the Planet that the case of toxic asbestos at Washington Elementary School remains open, and that her agency would not provide detailed information to the public before the case is closed.
School district Public Information Officer Mark Coplan said that no carpets had been removed from the floor of the classroom, and that Cal/OSHA had been called in because of a report that the exposed seam in the room represented a “tripping problem,” not because of any asbestos danger. He confirmed that upon inspection, asbestos was found in the classroom flooring and that the classroom had to be closed down. He said that district administrators had acted responsibly in dealing with this situation, once it was brought to their attention.
During five months of the school year, from February through late June, the tiles remained exposed to children taking band, general music classes, and cooking classes in the classroom. When Greenwell saw that this situation was going unaddressed month after month, he began to document the condition of the room and his own efforts to bring that condition to the attention of Cal/OSHA and school administrators.
Finally, on June 25, 2010, after the school year had ended, the room was officially closed down by OSHA, which posted a notice on the outside of the door declaring the room “dangerous” and forbidding “all work … at this location, under this condition.” Geraldine Tolentino, the Cal/OSHA official who had closed the room, telephoned Greenwell to notify him of the closure and acknowledging that that the hazard was indeed asbestos. Greenwell then visited the classroom himself and with his iPhone took photographs and video of the damaged floor, and later, of the abatement process that took place in July to repair the floor.
According to Greenwell, the history of the classroom’s asbestos condition is noteworthy for a number of reasons. The linoleum covering the asbestos tile was mislaid originally, with a seam running from the doorway along the most trafficked part of the room which was apt to rupture because of intense use, thereby exposing the asbestos tiling beneath. The rupture in the seam appears to be a longstanding one. Greenwell’s photographs show that in the past, tape was placed over the separated seam and that currently the exposed asbestos tiles are fragmented and partially pulverized.
In past decades, asbestos was incorporated into flame-retardant panels and tiles commonly used in construction. Asbestos production was outlawed in the U.S. in 1978, but the ban permitted installers to use up remaining stocks. Many buildings in the Berkeley Unified School District currently contain asbestos, and as buildings age, asbestos materials are commonly exposed in these facilities.
Notwithstanding the apparent potential hazard in the Washington Elementary School classroom, and Greenwell’s communications to Cal/OSHA, the Washington Elementary School Principal, and the Superintendent’s office about that hazard, the room continued to be used for five months, until the school year was over.
When Greenwell notified his immediate supervisor and also the principal, he says that “I was told that I should keep on teaching in the same room. I was told there was no other facility available.”
Greenwell said to the Planet, “I was looking out for the children in the classroom, as an advocate. In eleven years of teaching, I’ve never seen anything like this. If the district is poisoning the kids accidentally or inadvertently with asbestos and isn’t aware of it, that’s one thing. That would amount to negligence and incompetence. But when they know about it, and do not take action, I don’t know what to think of that.”
The Principal at Washington Elementary, Rita Kimball, did not respond to repeated phone and email messages from the Daily Planet in early August requesting information about the potential asbestos danger in the school classroom.
The Abatement Process
After bungalow classroom 11 at Washington Elementary was declared unsafe by Cal/OSHA on June 25, 2010, the Berkeley school district contacted RGA Environmental, a company in Emeryville, and requested that an “asbestos abatement” be done in the classroom. The abatement procedure was carried out on July 9. The asbestos tiles were ripped from the floor, revealing a black layer of mastic (adhesive) attaching the tiles to the flooring beneath. This mastic is typically asbestos-laden.
Photographs and video taken by Greenwell during the abatement process indicate that it was conducted without removing or covering white boards, posters and fabrics mounted on the walls, or ceiling hangings made by the children. Dinnerware and cooking utensils on the shelves, and cleaning materials and storage bins near the sink, also remained exposed.
After the abatement had been completed, Greenwell and this reporter inspected the room in early August. All the materials that had been left in the room during the abatement process were covered with dust, as were the floors, walls, cabinets, and shelves. New books, games, and other school supplies had been brought back into the room and were sitting on the floor.
In conversation with Greenwell on August 23, Geraldine Tolentino, the OSHA official who had closed the room, confirmed that the school district had been using the room during the summer, and that she had had a “Cease and Desist” order issued to the district, enjoining the district to immediately stop using the room, because it had been declared unsafe.
Although Greenwell told Tolentino that there was good evidence that the abatement had been improperly conducted, Tolentino said that the room would be cleared within a day or two for use by students.
Muriel Waller, who in her capacity as a consultant has managed many asbestos abatements, told the Planet that "If I were a parent and had a kid going into that room, I would be concerned, especially because there was reportedly thick dust in the room. The room should be tested again before students go back in there, to determine that the room is safe."
RGA Environmental is the main agency that does asbestos assessment and abatement for the Berkeley school district. Waller said that she is not familiar with the work of this particular company and cannot evaluate it. She noted, however, that abatement firms are sometimes reluctant to report to their clients the full extent of environmental damage and of the remediation that a hazardous situation legally requires. Cutting corners on an abatement reduces costs and maintains cordial relations between the firm and its client--a school district for example.