Another School Year Opens With
Questions Of Asbestos
By Stephen McGuire
Imagine looking out of the living room window around 11
p.m. in the evening and visible through the darkness are men in strange suits who can be
seen tooling away at the fašade of a building across the street.
the Francis Lewis construction sight warn neighbors and workers of asbestos removal
locations. (Above) Nighttime asbestos work on the exterior of Francis Lewis High School.
This was the scene this week at Francis Lewis High
School, along with posted signs that warn "Danger, Asbestos, Cancer and Lung Disease
Hazard," and the scene may be repeated at 88 other Queens schools where modernization
work is being done. At presstime, the School Construction Authority could not tell the Queens
Tribune which of these projects would involve asbestos removal.
Francis Lewis Modernization Explanation
School Construction Authority officials told the Tribune
that a letter was sent out to neighbors of the school at the onset of the project and that
the men in protective gear are there to participate in an "exterior
modernization" of the building which includes an asbestos abatement of the roof.
A copy of the letter addressed to residents stated
"The existing roof contains some non-friable asbestos material. Disturbance of
non-friable asbestos material does not easily create airborne fibers or pose potential
fiber exposure to surrounding occupants." The letter added that air quality test
results "will be made available to all interested parties."
Saying that all the abatement work will take place after
school hours, Mary Leas, community relations director for the SCA in Queens and author of
the letter to area residents explained, weather permitting, the asbestos removal part of
the job "will almost be completed by the beginning of school."
"The Board of Ed goes above and beyond Dept. of
Environmental Protection (the group that monitors private locations and businesses)
requirements," said Leas of the nature of the abatement work done in City schools.
To the right are asbestos danger signs
located, as you can see, near where unprotected young people pass by and just feet from
"Qualified workers will be conducting
air testing and environmental consultants will monitor the site," said Deborah Perry,
an SCA spokesperson. Terry Thomson, the Queens representative to the Board of Education,
checked into the conditions at Francis Lewis High School this week and reported to the
Tribune that an outside environmental monitoring group is checking the air quality within
the school daily.
At presstime, SCA officials said that a meeting between
parents of Francis Lewis students and construction experts was in the works and planned to
be held after school starts.
Is There Still Asbestos In Queens Schools?
In 1993, the school year was delayed as School Construction
Authority crews tested for dangerous asbestos conditions which requires that the
asbestos is damaged and free-floating in the air.
According to Leas, asbestos is still prevalent in some form
in many school buildings throughout the city since many of the buildings were built at a
time when it was used freely for a number of purposes. Concern is only necessary when the
asbestos has become airborne or construction crews working on a project find they need to
disturb or remove it.
There are presently 88 capital improvement projects similar
to the modernization happening at Francis Lewis but when the Tribune asked the SCA
what other schools in the borough were undergoing asbestos abatement as part of those
projects, the officials could not provide a list of schools where asbestos concerns were
"Im extremely concerned," said Antoinette
Mutarelli, vice president of the Parent Teacher Association at Francis Lewis.
Mutarelli argued that there has been no formal notification
of parents about the asbestos-related work being done as part of the schools
"It cant be safe. Why are they wearing
respirator suits?" Mutarelli asked questioning the safety of her two children upon
their return to school at Francis Lewis on Sept. 9.
"I was wondering what was going on," explained
Amanda Christon, a law student who lives in one of the two family homes across from the
A neighbor of Christon who spoke to the Tribune on
the condition of anonymity, saying "I feel very uncomfortable.
"They have a lot of nerve doing this and not telling
us," the neighbor said adding that she received no notification about any work going
on at Francis Lewis.
What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is known in the construction industry for being
fire resistant and tough. As a mineral it exists in rock formations and after a mining
process it can be processed into a material comprised of small fluffy fibers.
The individual fibers, according to the American Lung
Association, are 1,200 times smaller than a human hair and are invisible unless viewed
under a microscope.
Prior to 1972 when New York City banned the use of
asbestos in new building construction asbestos was used as insulation around hot
water pipes and boilers, fireproof materials, roof materials, car brakes and paper
When Is Asbestos Dangerous?
According to the American Lung Association, materials
containing asbestos are not dangerous unless the microscopic fibers contained within are
released into the air.
Research in recent years has linked inhalation of asbestos
to respiratory infection and lung, intestinal, stomach and rectal cancers.
Because asbestos fibers are tiny and weigh very little,
they can remain airborne for hours after they are released, increasing the chance that
they can be inhaled unknowingly.
According to the New York City Dept. of Health, asbestos
fibers, when breathed in, end up in the mucous that coats the lungs.
In some cases these fibers stick inside lung cells where
they may stay for a lifetime.
Release of asbestos fibers depends on the condition of the
material it is contained in.
"Friable" materials anything that is dry
and crumbles easily are more likely to release dangerous fibers into the air than
But the American Lung Association claims that "even
non-friable materials can release fibers when they are sanded sawed, drilled, pulled apart
or disturbed in any way.
Informational literature distributed by the Lung
Association contends that "Repairing, renovating or demolishing such (non-friable)
materials can cause fibers to be released."
An expert with a local asbestos abatement firm who spoke on
the condition of anonymity, told the Tribune that "it is not impossible for
non-friable asbestos to become airborne, but it does depend on the material."
Who Is At Risk?
City Health officials deem asbestos "not very
dangerous" unless persons are both exposed to the material on the job and smoke
Construction workers and anyone involved in repairing,
remodeling or tearing down a building may be exposed to asbestos, according to the
American Lung Association officials who state that fibers may be released during building
demolition or reconstruction.
Because of the nature of their work, firefighters, service
and maintenance workers and auto mechanics are considered to be within the group at
highest risk of developing an asbestos related illness.
|To Address Concerns About Asbestos,
The Dept. of Environmental Protection offers a 24-hour a
day complaint hotline which can be reached at (718) DEP-HELP.
The School Construction Authority also offers a special phone number to
answer questions and can be reached at (718) 472-8041.