In August of 2007, storms and flooding in Lake Zurich, Illinois led to the closure of May Whitney Elementary School at 120 North Church St. after crews found evidence of post-storm asbestos and mold contaminating the building.
After considering the costs and the health threat represented by the contamination, Whitney school officials decided not merely to delay the start of school, but to move the 440 Whitney students next door for the entire school year.
This building, at 100 Church Street, is connected to Whitney school by a hallway. Constructed in 1929 as Lake Zurich High School and later repurposed as Middle School North, the building is fully as old and in need of repair as Whitney. Used for storage before Whitney students moved in, it allowed lengthy renovations to Whitney itself, but presented some of the same risks as post-flood Whitney.
Whitney has since reportedly been rendered safe, but tests conducted over the summer of 2008 showed the persistent presence of asbestos and lead, and skeptical parents - remembering the mold horror of a year earlier, when many of the students reported diffuse illnesses - remain uncertain if the building is truly safe for their children.
Arguments by Wheaton-based AR Remediation Corporation's spokeswoman, Kathleen Wahl, that the presence of a compound does not indicate a hazard, have failed to reassure, as have remarks by Community Unit School District 95 architectural consultant Fred Schuster, who insists that the building is in good, safe and sound condition, though Schuster has acknowledged the continuing presence of asbestos in mechanical rooms, floor tiles and some bricks.
A reported leak on August 28 of this year, between the repaired section of the roof and the old roof, was also said to pose no apparent threat, either in terms of asbestos or lead, and the problem was finally addressed on August 31 when it stopped raining.
But it is the presence of these persistent leaks - seven documented in the 2008-09 school year alone - that have parents concerned as they consider the effect of such leaks in areas that are inaccessible to asbestos inspection; that is, where district officials consider asbestos to be in effect "out of harm's way" even if damaged by water.
There are 22 such areas, according to the most recent inspection, most of them above ceilings or behind walls. According to District 95 Director of Facilities Richard Marzec, the potential for the aforementioned leaks to release asbestos into the air is "extremely small".
Though most experts agree asbestos isn't dangerous unless tampered with, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), The U.S. Dept. of Labor's Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), and the American Cancer Society all agree that there is no minimum safe level of asbestos exposure; a single incident or a lifetime can lead to mesothelioma, a particularly lethal form of cancer.
The twice-yearly inspections at Whitney are part of a plan mandated by the Illinois Department of Health; said plan based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) guidelines. These guidelines direct all U.S. schools to prepare a report of asbestos locations within the school; disseminate the report - and all planned or active asbestos remediation activities - to parents, teachers and school staff on a regular basis; hire licensed, qualified asbestos remediation experts to prepare plans, perform inspections and undertake remedial actions; and instruct maintenance staff on the recognition of, and appropriate handling of, asbestos.
While parents worry at the start of another Whitney Elementary School year, District 95 officials face the prospect of about $45 million in needed upgrades, a budget crisis made worse by falling property tax revenues in the wake of the housing bubble and widespread foreclosures, and a recession that is predicted to linger well into 2010.
As one district official has pointed out, the process of making district schools safe for students is a case of "Band-Aid fixes" rather than major repairs. The statement, though an accurate assessment of the district's budget capabilities, is nonetheless far from reassuring to parents who watch their young children go off to school in a nearly century-old building known to contain asbestos.