In the small community of Schroon Lake, population about 1,800, located on the eastern edge of the Adirondack Park Preserve in the Adirondack Mountains, the students of the area’s single school found classes suspended Wednesday, September 23, when a building and renovation project uncovered asbestos behind a bathroom wall.
Officials at Schroon Lake Central School hope to bring the students back on Thursday. In the interim, The Essex County Health Department is standing by to make sure asbestos remediation in performed in accordance with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, as well as the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) mandates.
The school, built in 1936 when former President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to support a flagging economy, is certainly old enough to contain asbestos, which was widely used in various construction materials like insulation, floor and ceiling tiles, sealants and mastics during most of the last century.
In 1989, when health officials began to recognize its dangers, the EPA limited the use of asbestos in domestic products to one percent or less by weight (or volume), thus greatly curtailing the legacy costs of asbestos illnesses, which are estimated by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to total about $120 to $150 billion between 2005 and 2055.
Asbestos is comprised of long, very fine fibers which can, when inhaled or ingested, lead to a number of debilitating and potentially fatal diseases. The first of these is asbestosis, which is usually acquired through long exposure to asbestos. The other is mesothelioma, a cancer of the mesothelial lining inside the body that occurs as pleural mesothelioma (the lung), pericardial mesothelioma (the heart area) and peritoneal mesothelioma, which affects the stomach area.
Pleural mesothelioma is both the most common form of the disease, though all forms have a tendency to remain dormant for decades until the symptoms become so severe patients seek medical advice. Unfortunately, by that time the tumor has usually invaded so much vital tissue that no cure is possible, and most patients at this advanced stage are given about a year, or slightly more, to live.
Schroon Lake Central School serves about 275 students from kindergarten to 12th grade, with a surprisingly comprehensive academic program that can provide up to 22 transferable college credits. The school was recognized in 2008 by U.S. News and World Report as one of America’s “outstanding schools”.
It appears to be equally as impressive in its understanding of, and compliance with, the EPA’s Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, or AHERA, which governs how schools across the nation identify and deal with asbestos. Workers who discovered the asbestos Monday immediately sealed off the area to prevent any potential fibers from becoming airborne and threatening the future health of students.
In addition, school officials have already scheduled air quality testing subsequent to the asbestos removal, which allows the school to have air quality reports back before the school is reopened as planned. If the reports are negative, the school will remain closed until the situation is rectified, according to Superintendent Mike Bonnewell.
The school is currently vested in a $14.7-million dual-purpose renovation, to upgrade the actual school building and to convert the former gymnasium into an auditorium. Most of the work so far has taken place on the exterior, but the removal of an interior wall revealed asbestos. The work is expected to be finished by the fall of 2010. Both phases are the result of a voter-approved bond measure in 2006 which allocated about $14.7 million for school upgrades and improvements.
The unscheduled closure will count as one of the district’s five allocated snow-emergency days, which are regulated by the New York State Legislature.