Parents fret about asbestos effect: Elementary children exposed to it in Detroit

By Erik Lords and Wendy Wendland, Detroit Free Press

A day after they learned that their children had been exposed to asbestos dust at school, Burton Elementary parents made doctor’s appointments and watched their children for symptoms.

But medical experts said it’s not likely the children will suffer long-term health problems.

A demolition crew began tearing down the Lyle Building, which is adjacent to the school at 3420 Cass Ave., on June 5. The project was halted after dust caused discomfort to some students and teachers.

Most students returned to the school the next day. Parents said they were shocked Tuesday when they received a letter that said the school would be closing early for the year and that students’ backpacks would have to be left in the school because of possible contamination.

“Those kids are innocent, and they trust adults to do the right thing,” said Russ Bellant, vice chairman of the Local School Community Organization, whose son Christopher, 10, attends Burton. “This is really, really upsetting to me.”

Some parents were baffled by the timing of the demolition.

Charles Jackson, whose daughter Jamilah, 7, and son Jamal, 13, attend Burton, said his children had a cough “that was not normal” and allergic reactions. Bellant said he will take his son, who had stomach pains, to a doctor.

But one week of asbestos exposure is not likely to cause long-term health problems for the children, health officials said Wednesday.

“There is no excuse for it to have happened…. But the likelihood of there being a health consequence from this is remote,” said Dr. Alfred Franzblau, associate professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

When asbestos is stirred up and gets into the air, the fibers can become lodged in the lungs. The fibers may lead to diseases, including lung cancer.

But research linking diseases to asbestos centers around workers who were exposed to high levels for years, or people who lived with the workers and were exposed to the substance by dust on workers’ clothing.

Typically, asbestos-caused diseases doesn’t surface until decades after exposure. There is no test parents can give their children to measure their risk. The only way to know for certain whether asbestos fibers are in the lungs is to take a sample of lung tissue, Franzblau said.

Bob Francis, executive director of capital improvements for Detroit Public Schools, said the Lyle Building, which was built in the 1920s, was being demolished to provide a playground for Burton students.

He said that school and construction officials agreed that it would take 37 days to demolish the building and remove rubble. The work began on June 5 because Burton’s largest “empty-school” window for completing the project was between today, which was to have been the last day of school, and June 18, the start of summer school, Francis said.

“That was not sufficient,” Francis said.

“All of this was discussed on May 15 in a meeting with staff members and parents,” Francis said, adding that 75 people attended.

But Bellant and other parents said they received no letter in May informing them that the demolition would occur.

The letter families received Tuesday said that “moderate” levels of asbestos exposure existed, but no specifics were provided. On Wednesday, school officials still couldn’t be exact.

” ‘Moderate’ has a meaning to professionals in that line of work,” Francis said. “There’s low, moderate and high. These are results from wipe tests, not air samples.”

He said the district was to start taking air samples Wednesday.

As for getting medical help, Francis said: “We would be open to discussions with parents about their specific concerns, and for arranging advice for their concerns.”

Heather Willis, whose 5-year old daughter Hannah Kirkland attends Burton, said she made a doctor’s appointment Wednesday morning.

“Any exposure, to me, is too much,” she said.

Asbestos Q&A

What is asbestos?
A fiber that was commonly used for insulation and as a fire retardant in building materials. Manufacturers have voluntarily limited the use of asbestos, but it is still common in older buildings.
Is it dangerous?
If asbestos is in good shape and left undisturbed, no. But when it is torn up and gets into the air, like during a demolition, possibly.
What are the health risks?
People exposed to large amounts of asbestos for years have been found to be at greater risk for lung cancer, mesothelioma (a cancer of the chest lining and abdominal cavity) and asbestosis, sometimes fatal lung scarring. These diseases typically take decades to develop, and cigarette smoking exacerbates the problem.

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Last update: March 06, 2014. 08:41:31 pm.