Asbestos threat?

Documents indicate Chicago Public Schools have not acted on inspectors’ recommendations to remove and repair asbestos

By Adriana Cardona-Maguigad and Kari Lydersen  

Enrique Rodriguez, Jessica Fernandez, Alexa Mencia, Nora Younkin and Meredith Francis contributed to this report, which was produced as a joint project of Univision Chicago and the Social Justice News Nexus at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.

At these links, watch the two-part Univision feature on asbestos in CPS schools by Adriana Cardona-Maguigad, Jessica Fernandez and Enrique Rodriguez. 

Part 1: Asbesto: ¿una amenaza para los alumnos de las Escuelas Públicas de Chicago?

Part 2: Las inconsistencias sobre el asbesto en los reportes de las Escuelas Públicas de Chicago

Every morning parents like Raul Camacho take their kids to school assuming the premises where they learn, eat and play are safe.

Camacho is an active member of his children’s school community. He attends parents’ meetings when he can, chaperones school field trips and pays close attention to the conditions of the school building where his kids spend a big portion of their time.

One of his major concerns is how well the school district, in this case the Chicago Public Schools, is ensuring that its buildings are safe and well-maintained.  But he feels that is not happening at John Spry Elementary in Little Village, where his kids go to school.

He is worried about broken pipe insulation he can see in the basement where kindergarteners spend much of their time. He thinks the visible fibers in the frayed insulation could have friable asbestos —a type of mineral once widely used in building products that can be dangerous if inhaled over long periods of time.

“The insulation that covers the pipes are made of asbestos,” Camacho said. “What called my attention is that those pipes are located in the basement area where the kindergarteners are and where the school lunchroom is located.”

And Camacho knows where to look. He has been a licensed asbestos removal worker for 17 years. CPS’s own records also note asbestos present in the insulation of pipes in the school’s basement.

In decades past, asbestos was heavily used in carpet mastic, floor tiles, window caulk, paint thickener, insulation materials, floor and ceiling tile and other essential construction materials.

But starting in the 1970s, the federal government banned various uses of asbestos since it breaks down into fibers that lodge in the lungs and lead to increased risk of lung cancer and other health problems.

Dr. Susan Buchanan, clinical associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences in the UIC School of Public Health, says it’s hard to tell what amount of asbestos is necessary to cause cancer. She highly recommends decreasing the levels of asbestos in schools where children are present especially because their lungs are still developing. Photo: Univision Chicago

Asbestos fibers can cause cancer, but it takes many years between exposure and disease, and no one is going to have symptoms immediately,” said Dr. Susan Buchanan, clinical associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences in the UIC School of Public Health. “Normally it is about 30 years after the exposure and again it is necessary to have an amount of exposure to the fibers over time.”

The use of asbestos dates back thousands of years, but the industrial revolution in the mid-1800s ramped up asbestos production and use in North America. In the early 20th century the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report on the dangers asbestos posed to workers handling it.

According to experts like the Environmental Working Group, companies including Exxon knew about the dangers posed by asbestos back in the 1930s and continued selling products containing it.

In 1989 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a regulation banning most asbestos-containing material. Though that law was later overturned, various bans and concerns about asbestos remained.  Meanwhile in 1986 Congress passed  the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) regulating asbestos in public schools.  

“The AHERA law is very important because it sets up a series of steps; the first step is to identify what schools have asbestos,” said Peter Orris, professor and chief of Service Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System. “The second stage is to require schools to have an approach to protect students from those fibers.”

Under the AHERA law, school districts are required to perform inspections every three years in areas that were built with materials containing asbestos; maintain an asbestos management plan; keep a copy at each school; and send notifications to parents, teachers and school personnel about the maintenance plans and any asbestos work to be performed. They must have a designated contact person, and they also need to perform periodic surveillance of the areas that are built with asbestos-containing materials. They also need to hire certified asbestos experts to do repair or abatement work.

However, an eight-month investigation by Univision Chicago in collaboration with the Social Justice News Nexus, a program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, found that CPS has not remediated much of the  asbestos identified in dozens of schools. And the district has not acted on the recommendations of its own inspectors to perform asbestos removal or remediation.

Santiago Rivoir head of B.B Construction Enterprise Inc. performs a show-and-tell of the protocol to be followed when abating asbestos in school buildings and residencies. Photo: Univision Chicago

Our analysis compared two sets of CPS documents posted online: 2013 inspections showing the condition of all asbestos-containing material and inspectors’ recommendations for maintenance, removal or repair; and 2015 updates that show what if any action was taken.

Our team also sent a number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to CPS asking for specifics of the work done in several schools across the city. We also asked for a list of all schools that received any asbestos maintenance work in the last six years.  

Our analysis showed that in many cases, CPS did not act on removal or repair recommendations of its inspectors. Additionally, many categories in the CPS reports were left blank, including sections meant to indicate whether asbestos is friable, or prone to crumbling, in which case it is more likely to lead to harmful exposure.

For example, in the 2013 inspection of John Spry Elementary, inspectors recommended the removal of friable asbestos in at least seven areas in the school basement, mostly in pipe insulation. But CPS’ reports posted online and documents provided in response to a FOIA request did not show any action taken.  

A 2016  report by Asbestos Nation, a campaign of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) advocacy organization, also found CPS has taken little action to address significant asbestos concerns.

According to Asbestos Nation’s report, CPS did not follow their inspectors’ recommendations to encapsulate or remove asbestos in the vast majority of schools.

“In over 600 locations throughout the 184 schools, inspectors recommended that friable asbestos that was damaged or had the potential for damage be repaired or removed. But according to the district’s latest asbestos surveillance update in fall 2015, only 11 schools had complied with the recommendations,” stated the Asbestos Nation report.

For large school districts like CPS facing budget crises, keeping up with asbestos maintenance plans can be complicated, time-consuming and expensive.  

The  first step is to perform a visual examination of the school building, said Bryant Williams, a certified asbestos inspector. Then inspectors develop a plan to collect bulk samples of friable asbestos-containing material.

“You have to survey the entire area, the entirety of the building that you are performing an inspection on and determine what suspect materials are on site,” he said.

The samples are then taken to a lab for examination. If the presence of asbestos is confirmed, the inspectors will recommend either removing or encapsulating the material.

Williams, who also  worked for Cook County’s Department of Environmental Control and oversaw the asbestos regulatory program for suburban Cook County, said  school districts have to pay for the costly abatement work, including permit cost and a third party to collect air and bulk samples and to make sure the area is ready for re-entry.

“Friable material… can be crushed to powder by hand, those are the most dangerous types of asbestos-containing materials,” Williams said, adding that asbestos-containing pipe insulation, the material in question at John Spry Elementary, could be very dangerous if it becomes airborne.

Once inspectors make recommendations, it’s up to each school district to decide when to do the repairs and whether to remove or encapsulate the material.  

CPS did not respond to a list of questions for this story, including how decisions are made about when and where to remove asbestos. Experts said and CPS documents indicate that often asbestos is removed as part of larger construction projects, rather than simply because it poses a risk.

The fall 2015 surveillance update for Saucedo reported that thousands of asbestos-containing tiles throughout were removed, but that report didn’t show any action taken on asbestos-containing pipe insulation recommended for removal in 2013. Photo: Univision Chicago

At Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Little Village, parents, like Juanita Torres, are worried.

“We noticed that there were a lot of irregularities in the school with the walls, the roofs, the floors,” Torres said. “Upstairs the classrooms were in pretty bad condition with humidity and dry paint coming off the walls.”  

In 2013 an inspector recommended removing at least eight different batches of asbestos-containing materials including various types of pipe insulation, a total of more than 2,000 individual pieces throughout the school. Additionally, 34,000 asbestos-containing tiles were noted as having both high potential for disturbance and being friable.

In 2014, parents voiced their concerns over building conditions at Saucedo, including  the potential health threat posed by  friable asbestos, as reported by DNAinfo.

“One big issue was at Saucedo Academy we had multiple complaints that the school was in disrepair, tiles were broken, ceilings were uncovered, pipes were exposed, and the staff was concerned that the pipes and the tiles had asbestos in them,” said John Kugler, a field representative with CTU who takes complaints from union members about working conditions in the schools.

The fall 2015 surveillance update for Saucedo reported that thousands of asbestos-containing tiles throughout were removed, but that report didn’t show any action taken on asbestos-containing pipe insulation recommended for removal in 2013. The 2013 inspection noted  hundreds of pieces of pipe insulation with high disturbance potential and friable asbestos throughout the school, including in the locker room shower and the attic.

Our team sent a FOIA request asking CPS for additional documents and information detailing asbestos abatement at Saucedo. The district responded a few days after we first published this story with several documents, some of them providing information about work done at Saucedo in 2015 including floor tile and  pipe insulation repairs on the first floor, north corridor and three other rooms.

CPS also sent copies of contracts listing asbestos-related work done in 2016 on the first, second and third floors as well as in the north and south attic. The documents did not include letters to parents notifying them of the work to be done in 2016, nor did they specify whether some of the issues listed in the 2015 surveillance report were addressed.

The lack of clear documentation detailing work done at the school after parents came together is a problem for Kugler, who wants to keep a track record of the maintenance work. “I have not received any documents from CPS, in fact it’s very difficult to receive any documents from the Chicago Public Schools regarding safety, remediation or abatement,” he said.

John Kugler is a field representative with CTU who takes complaints from union members about working conditions in the schools. Photo: Univision Chicago

In addition to Spry and Saucedo, our analysis found reason for concern at a number of other schools.

In Benito Juarez Community Academy high school in Pilsen, in 2013 asbestos was found in more than 20,000 yellow and reddish brown floor tiles in hallways and classrooms. Inspectors said the tiles have “high disturbance potential” and recommended repairing them. Letters to parents in June 2013 obtained through a FOIA noted the planned removal of asbestos-containing tile and countertop.  But the 2015 CPS update does not show the yellow or reddish brown tiles having been repaired.   

In Telpochcalli Elementary School in Little Village, the 2013 inspection recommended the removal of asbestos-containing material with “high disturbance potential” located in pipe insulation in the engine rooms, a tunnel and a classroom. CPS notified the parents, faculty and staff at Telpochcalli in May 2015 that an asbestos abatement removal project would be conducted that summer, and the fall 2015 update showed that thousands of floor tiles containing asbestos had been abated. But that same report showed the pipe insulation had not been addressed.

At Philip D. Armour Elementary School in Bridgeport, the 2013 inspection recommended removing asbestos-containing tile in bathrooms and asbestos-containing pipe insulation. The fall 2015 update did not show this material had been removed.

At Roberto Clemente Community Academy high school in Humboldt Park, the 2013 inspection recommended 27,500 asbestos-containing tiles be removed from locations including halls, bathrooms, the darkroom and the TV studio. The 2015 update indicated that some but not all of the tile had been removed.  The 2013 report also recommended removing  friable asbestos-containing fiberglass pipe insulation throughout the building, but no change was reflected in the 2015 update.  Documents obtained through a FOIA included letters to parents about unspecified asbestos abatement in 2013 and abatement of wire insulation in 2014, but this work did not appear to be noted in the 2015 update.

Asbestos exists throughout our cities, in countless buildings constructed in decades past. And since asbestos poses little risk when it is fully encapsulated and the material is not damaged, many people are in proximity to asbestos frequently with no ill effects. Trace amounts of asbestos may also be in the air we breathe outside, in part because of the prevalence of vacant buildings containing asbestos in cities like Chicago. But experts like Orris worry about the safety of those who are exposed to asbestos on a daily basis, even if the exposure is minimal.

“Low risk…doesn’t say no risk, which is the situation that we prefer to see,” he said. “My health recommendation is, if there is asbestos fiber in the air especially with children exposed — reduce or remediate the risk.”

Our team also obtained asbestos maintenance reports from other school districts under the Freedom of Information Act. Records from districts in Naperville, East Aurora, West Aurora, Kankakee, Wilmette and Cicero showed significantly fewer asbestos-containing materials than in Chicago Public Schools, and there were few instances of asbestos-containing material recommended for removal in these districts’ latest reports.

A worker from B.B. Construction Enterprise Inc. performs a show-and-tell about the precautions they need to take when abating asbestos in school buildings or residencies. Photo: Univision Chicago

At Indian Prairie District 204 in Naperville, for example, asbestos-containing materials in floor tile and ceiling tile were not considered by inspectors to pose a threat. But in 2013 and 2016, inspectors noted “boiler breeching insulation” at Waubonsie Valley High School that was “heavily patched” with “signs of deterioration.” It was recommended for removal, but the documents showed no record of abatement.

The suburban records underscore the lack of uniformity in how different districts comply with the AHERA law. Each district uses a different format and some have much less detail than others. The Cicero district southwest of Chicago, for example, did not note whether asbestos-containing material was friable, an important factor in whether it poses a risk.

In all the districts we examined, it can be hard to decipher from records when and where abatement has occurred. And though schools are required to  carry out inspections,  prepare management plans, and take action to address risk,  they are not actually required to remove or encapsulate problematic asbestos.

“The law doesn’t actually require removal,” Williams said. “You can recommend removal based on law, you can enforce clean up but you can’t go in and say, ‘Hey you have to remove this.’  There is a potential flaw in the law.”

The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) is the agency that oversees asbestos management plans of K-12 schools. The agency oversees compliance with asbestos regulations, ensures  that school districts have an updated plan, that licensed professionals are hired  to do asbestos work and that the school body and visitors are made aware of any asbestos hazards in the buildings.  

“IDPH understands that CPS is prioritizing its asbestos response projects in accordance with the risk factors provided in the management plans and that CPS will address in the future any unresolved management plan recommendations,” said IDPH spokesperson Melaney Arnold.

She added that each school district determines, “how long it may take to address response action recommendations in a management plan.  Upon complaint and inspection, IDPH can and will demand action on response actions recommendations where an imminent health risk is evident.”

But what does IDPH consider to be  an imminent health risk?

The response action varies from district to district, especially if one has more resources than the other.

“[The federal AHERA law] doesn’t define what that approach will be,” said  Orris, adding that resource-starved school districts may not have the money to remove potential threats.  “It leaves it up to the school board in their local areas to make the very hard choices.”

“In those situations they have to [choose] between spending money on the education that is so needed and reducing the threat… Richer districts in suburban areas and other areas have often decided to remove even the smallest threat,” he continued.

Sarah Rothschild, Education Policy Analyst with the Chicago Teachers Union, understands the Chicago district is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to prioritizing funding for needed capital projects and other programs, but she said CPS should make an effort to be more transparent.

“I understand as a taxpayer that there are budget issues, I understand that everyone can’t have all the repairs they want every year, but at least let me know when to expect it,” she said. “Especially when the district is always building new schools. Fix what you own, before building new.”

Show-and-tell of an asbestos worker from B.B. Construction Enterprise Inc. going into a concealed area with a water pump—a piece of equipment needed when dealing with friable asbestos. Photo: Univision Chicago

Rothschild looks at issues related to equity in the schools including around  funding, facilities, maintenance and repairs, and access to programs. She noted that every year CPS issues its capital spending plan, but those reports don’t specify exactly what type of work will be performed or why schools are chosen for certain projects.

“So if your walls are crumbling and you are worried that there is lead paint and asbestos in your classrooms and the roof was leaking, you don’t know with 670 other schools how much better or worse yours is and when should you expect it to be repaired,” said Rothschild.

When parents are concerned about the conditions of their school, they don’t oftentimes know where to go or how to make complaints. “And a lot of principals are scared to speak up,” Rothschild said, adding that in some cases the ones who push to get repairs done in the schools are parents and the Local School Councils.  

We looked at the CPS contracts and procurement website and found that since March 2016, bids have been submitted for asbestos abatement work at 10 different schools. If that work has occurred, it does not yet show up in CPS records posted online.  

CPS responded to our FOIA requests seeking an accounting of asbestos abatement done district-wide with two spreadsheets showing work orders and plans for asbestos removal, and with a handful of letters sent to parents about asbestos removal. But the documents appeared to be incomplete, and it was not clear what the untitled spreadsheets were showing. CPS did not respond to questions asking for clarification about what information exactly was contained in the spreadsheets.

We also asked general questions about where funding for asbestos abatement comes from and who decides which recommendations will be carried out and when. But several weeks later, CPS had not provided answers.

A day after our deadline, CPS spokesperson Emily Bolton sent a statement saying: “The scope of this FOIA and subsequent questions on specific schools has amounted to a very large undertaking in order to ensure you have the most accurate and up-to-date information for your reporting. Accordingly, we will not be able to provide in-depth responses to your questions by the end of the day. Please know that we are working fastidiously and will respond as soon as we can. Thank you for your continued patience.”

Given that CPS does not seem to be aggressively addressing asbestos,  Rothschild said parents and teachers  must make complaints and find adequate venues to voice their concerns.

“People need to ask questions, they need to ask tough questions,” she said. “I want to help empower parents and teachers to fight, to get their schools the capital improvements that they need.”

In the meantime experts like  Dr. Susan Buchanan and Dr. Peter Orris warn the public about the ongoing dangers of asbestos in schools buildings if they are left unaddressed.

“Nobody knows the amount of asbestos that’s necessary to cause cancer,” Buchanan said. “It could be a small amount for one person, but for others it could be a larger amount. That’s why we need to be careful and decrease the levels as much as possible.”

She said she worries about the health of teachers and other school staff  because they tend to spend long hours in the buildings over many years. And she is even more concerned about the kids. “We have to be careful with them because their lungs are still developing.”