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Educators want new asbestos guidelines

O.C. teachers at two high schools say haphazard removal of material aggravated health woes.

June 07, 2007|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

Teachers at an Orange County high school asked Fullerton school board members Tuesday to adopt new procedures to ensure that students and teachers are not threatened by renovations to remove asbestos from buildings.

The educators said they were concerned about the long-term health effects of what they said was a sloppy removal of asbestos from two schools last fall, undertaken without notifying parents and teachers, and in one case, in the same building where students were taking classes.

Faculty at Troy and La Habra high schools have alleged that officials at the Fullerton Joint Union High School District did not adequately protect students and teachers from dust that may contain asbestos and lead-based paint, which they said have aggravated respiratory problems among teachers and students.

Last month, a Troy High School teacher found a bundle of five large plastic-wrapped bags marked with the words "danger" and "asbestos" sitting near equipment that circulates air in the building.

Fullerton Supt. George Giokaris said he ordered workers to remove the bags the same day of the discovery. The district is now investigating how long the asbestos was there and who left it.

Dina Skrabalak, a Spanish teacher at Troy, said she developed asthma, chest pain and bronchitis during the renovation when dust circulated in the halls of the building in which she taught.

"My concern is that there was asbestos floating around while school was in session, with no signs posted for months at a time," Skrabalak said. "I liken it to being trapped in a garage with solvents and chemicals you got at Home Depot."

Skrabalak, one of 82 Troy teachers who signed a petition last month expressing concern about the health risks, said that teachers, students and parents should have been notified that asbestos was being handled while students were in the building and that more care should have been taken to ensure their health and safety.

School officials alerted the community that they would be removing hazardous materials through public meetings, and they posted signs at the work sites warning of hazardous materials, said Carl Erickson, administrator of human resources.

District officials said they have followed legal procedures, including hiring certified asbestos removal contractors and regularly testing for air quality.

The school district is using $68 million in voter-approved bonds to renovate its six four-year high schools in Fullerton, La Habra and Buena Park.

Workers have been replacing old electrical wires and plumbing, at the same time removing asbestos and other hazardous building materials from buildings constructed in the 1950s and '60s.

Asbestos removal is regulated by the state because breathing the fibers can lead to serious respiratory illness and cancer.

Federal guidelines require school districts to notify parents, teachers and employees, as well as the state air quality agency, of any plans for removing asbestos from school buildings.

Months earlier, teachers at Troy had complained of unusually long-lasting upper respiratory problems and asthma, which they believed were related to the dust circulating near occupied classrooms.

"Any time you have asbestos removed or disturbed, you have a air quality problem and a health problem," said Tina Cherry, spokeswoman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which oversees the safe removal of asbestos when buildings are renovated or demolished.

Last fall, 12 teachers at La Habra signed a letter addressed to Supt. Giokaris citing concerns about clouds of concrete dust and improperly sealed work areas during the renovation, which they believed may have caused throat irritations among students and teachers.

Misty Burt, a social science teacher at La Habra High School, said she and other teachers were concerned that the construction dust was making them sick.

"Is it the dust, is it paint chips? We didn't know, and no one could give us that answer," she said.

Although the dust at La Habra High School is now under control, Burt said, "we're worried that this is going to manifest itself in health problems for us and our students in the future."

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tony.barboza@latimes.com

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