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Pennsylvania school renovation interrupted by asbestos discovery

Environmental inspectors preparing for the renovation of a Pennsylvania school apparently missed more than 16,000 square feet of ceiling tiles that contained unsafe levels of asbestos.


Demolition work had already begun at Ardmore Avenue Elementary School in Landsdowne when workers found 16,400 square feet of asbestos-containing tile in classrooms, hallways and under the carpet in the school’s library and principal’s office.


According to news reports, the school district’s environmental contractor had sampled tiles throughout the building before demolition began, but reported no signs of the known carcinogen.


The Delaware County Daily Times reports that the tiles were discovered by demolition crews taking apart ceilings in a 1960s-era wing of the school, which is being renovated for a 2012 reopening. The paper said several school board members were angry that the asbestos was not discovered earlier and that its removal will add more than $30,000 to the $16 million project.


“My question is, how did they miss an entire two floors of the building?” board Vice President Diane Leahan asked.


Board member Robert Reardon said, “Sixteen thousand square feet — that’s not a spot you can miss easily. That’s a lot of tiles.”


Asbestos was widely used in building materials until the 1970s, when the EPA began regulating its use. If the building materials are damaged, disturbed or deteriorate, asbestos fibers can be released into the air, creating a hazard. Inhaling even small amounts of asbestos can cause mesothelioma, a deadly disease of the lung lining, and other respiratory illnesses.


A federal law, the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, or AHERA, requires public school districts and non-profit private schools to inspect for asbestos-containing building material. The Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates asbestos under the Clean Air Act, recommends "in-place" management of intact materials that contain asbestos. However, removal or abatement is required for demolition or renovation projects.


According to the Daily Times, the school district’s lawyer said the board could explore legal options against the environmental inspectors. He said the demolition contractors went to work based on the inspector’s testing.


Board President Charlotte Hummel called for an investigation into how and why the contractor missed the toxic tiles. “What we should do is approve payment to the [demolition] contractor, and bring [the environmental contractors] in here to roast them over the coals,” she said.