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Lafayette Academy students at little risk of asbestos-related health problems, doctor tells parents

Jess Clark / WWNO

The Choice Foundation brought in Children’s Hospital lung doctor Dean Edell to talk to Lafayette Academy parents about their health concerns after a WWNO investigation found asbestos removal had been conducted while children were in the building in 2017. Edell told parents their children are at virtually no risk of developing asbestos-related health issues from attending school at Lafayette Academy.

Lafayette Academy Charter School students who may have been exposed to asbestos during the 2016-2017 school year are at virtually no risk of asbestos-related health issues, a doctor told Lafayette parents at a meeting last week.

The Choice Foundation, which runs Lafayette Academy, brought in Dean Edell, director of pulmonary and respiratory care at the Children’s Hospital of New Orleans, to assuage parents after an investigation by WWNO uncovered problems with an  asbestos removal job at the Carrollton charter school.

In July, Lafayette was forced to close its building for the upcoming school year because of asbestos contamination, after contractors working at the school mishandled asbestos-containing materials. That work was apparently done this summer, when no children were at the site.

WWNO later reported on a previous asbestos-removal job, in 2017. The station found an inspection report showing that work began as early as March 2017, when students were in class.

The Choice Foundation paid Edell to review records from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality showing the amounts of asbestos in the school air while the work was being done in 2017. Edell says based on those records, students were safe.

“The exposure is basically negligible, almost incalculable, as far as true risk for the children,” Edell said in an interview with WWNO before Thursday’s meeting at Xavier University.

Edell said given the amount of asbestos in the air and the length of time students were in the building during the work, students are at virtually no risk of developing asbestosis or mesothelioma. Those are diseases caused by inhaling or ingesting asbestos fibers. Edell says the diseases normally present decades after exposure. 

“It normally takes sometimes decades of exposure, significant exposure, prolonged exposure, very high concentrations,” he said.

If parents have noticed that their kids have experienced lung problems, asbestos is not the culprit, Edell said.

“Anybody at that school that is having symptoms now is 100 percent not related to asbestos,” he said. Edell said it is possible coughing or wheezing could be due to irritation from construction dust.

ASBESTOS REMOVAL WORK WENT ON WHILE STUDENTS WERE IN SCHOOL

The concerns about asbestos came up after a botched asbestos removal job contaminated the school this summer.

Lafayette Academy was part of the state-run Recovery School District until July 1, when it switched over to control of the Orleans Parish School Board, along with dozens of other RSD charter schools. Both school districts and the Choice Foundation assured parents that students were not in the building during the recent abatement work that resulted in the school’s temporary closure.

They also told parents that students  were not in the building uring an earlier asbestos removal last year. But a WWNO investigation uncovered a Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) report, showing the Recovery School District contracted a company to do asbestos work on the third floor of Lafayette Academy Charter School while children were in the building in March 2017.

The LDEQ inspector noted a number of concerns with the 2017 work, including unsecured containment areas, an on-site supervisor with falsified paperwork and children poking their heads into containment areas. The report says most issues were corrected by the time the inspector returned to the school five days later.

At the suggestion of the LDEQ, the Recovery School District changed workers’ hours so that they only did asbestos abatement after students had left for the day. Air quality tests show that on the day the inspector was at the school, the air was safe for students.

PARENTS WANT MORE ANSWERS ABOUT WHAT’S NEXT

Some parents still have questions about why they weren’t notified the job was being done while their children were in the building, and about the safety of the old McDonogh 35 building on Kerlerec Street, one of two temporary sites where Lafayette Academy students will be attending school this year.

Last month, the Orleans Parish School District ordered that campus evacuated, too, after construction workers disturbed asbestos-containing insulation, possibly releasing the material into the school. District officials said it was a minor incident that was quickly cleaned up. But parents are still concerned.

“Your child already went through something. You didn’t tell anybody anything then,” parent Contrice Tyson said after the meeting. “Now you’re sending your kids over to 35 that has asbestos over there.” 

Parents at the meeting last week said wanted to hear from the Orleans Parish School Board, which is overseeing renovations at the old McDonogh 35 building. But no representatives were at the meeting. That peeved some parents, including Demirah Howard.

“They should have been here,” Howard said.

Choice Foundation President Jim Swanson told parents that before they put any students in McDonogh 35 building, the Choice Foundation will have an independent assessment done to determine the building is safe and free of airborne asbestos, bats and mold.

In an emailed statement, Dominique Ellis, a spokeswoman for the  Orleans Parish school district, said the school will be “fully prepared to house students on August 27,” and that “small areas that contained disturbed asbestos have been properly cleaned and repaired.”

The district did not respond to an inquiry from WWNO asking whether the statement means construction will be finished before students return to school.

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