Not breathing easy

Posted on: Sun, 07/18/2004 - 3:09am
synthia's picture
Joined: 10/05/2002 - 09:00



July 18, 2004

Parents of children at PS 132 in Manhattan knew something was wrong there. Before plaster fell from a leaky ceiling in May, before asbestos abatement cleanups, and before any of them had any thought of a class-action lawsuit against the city, there were signs, many said recently.

For Santa Disla and her daughter, Anisha Custodio, 9, the first indications were in April, when the child noticed two reddish, oval-shaped marks beneath each of her eyes. They were about the size of pennies, Anisha recalled.



They turned a dark color within a few days, mother and daughter said, followed by other, pimple-like marks on her face and body.

"I had things on my face and I was scared to go to school," Anisha said in a recent interview. "I thought people would laugh at me."

No one laughed, she said, sounding relieved. But for Anisha and dozens of other children at the Juan Pablo Duarte School in Washington Heights, named after the founder of the Dominican Republic, the problems were just beginning.

On May 3, as workers repaired seepage of rainwater in ceilings on the fourth and fifth floors of the five-story building, a piece of plaster fell, exposing traces of asbestos. The city's Department of Education closed the 99-year-old school for two days and shut down those upper floors for the remainder of the school year.

Asbestos, a grayish-white material with no odor or taste, was used in the past for insulation of buildings, among other things. If breathed for a long enough period of time, it can cause respiratory problems and cancer.

PS 132's first, second and third floors were kept open until late June, when the school year ended. The school is not open for summer classes.

Martin Oestreicher, chief executive of school support services, said in a recent interview that tests after the asbestos was discovered revealed no asbestos risk on the lower three floors.

But parents insisted their children became ill, complaining of breathing difficulties, headaches and vomiting, among other ailments.

Beyond the families' concern about asbestos exposure, parents said both children and teachers spoke of cockroaches and rodents in the building, which was strewn with garbage bags.

Oestreicher denied the charges, citing records that he said showed exterminators visited the school and reported no special problems. He added that the school's custodians routinely clean the building.

"The families don't trust what the Department of Education is saying," said Steven Goldman, the lawyer who is representing 71 families with children who are students at PS 132 - nearly 100 children in all. "We look at everything very skeptically right now."

Goldman has filed notices of claim with the office of the city corporation counsel and the city comptroller that he intends to file a class-action lawsuit against the city and the Department of Education.

The families, mostly of Dominican descent and Spanish-speaking, intend to sue for $5 million each for medical fees, pain and suffering and future medical monitoring, he said.

Not satisfied by cleanup

Goldman said asbestos test results conducted by one of his consultants in early June - after the department said the building was cleaned up - found that certain classrooms on the fourth and fifth floors had asbestos levels of 23 million structures per square centimeter.

"They close buildings and schools and residences down at levels of 10,000 [structures per square centimeter]," he said.

Asbestos tests results can be measured differently, experts said. The most widely accepted standard considered safe for children is 70 structures per square millimeter, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regional office in Manhattan.

Oestreicher said the city conducted nearly 700 tests for asbestos throughout the building. Many of the tests showed little, if any, asbestos levels, he said, and the building is safe.

But experts said any level of asbestos is potentially hazardous, particularly when detected after abatement measures have been carried out.

"Any amount of any type of asbestos fiber should be of great concern to anyone exposed to it," said Deborah Addis, president of Boston-based Addis & Reed Inc., a consulting company. "Children, adults, anybody."

By and large, though, experts said that short-term exposure to asbestos is probably not dangerous, except in high-dose areas, such as the World Trade Center site in the days and months after the terrorist attacks.

"It's almost impossible that a one-time exposure to asbestos can cause symptoms right away," said Dr. Jaime Szeinuk, an occupational pulmonary disease physician at Mount Sinai Medical Center. "No matter the dose ... it takes years, many, many years."

But Szeinuk added that an unkempt environment, such as parents allege PS 132 to be, can trigger allergies that produce the aforementioned symptoms. Even in low doses, he said, dust from dirty atmospheres can cause respiratory problems and skin conditions.

"The more you're exposed to smaller doses over a long period of time," Szeinuk said, "the more chances you have to develop [an allergic] response."

Goldman, meanwhile, said the parents and the city are negotiating a legal agreement that would allow his experts to re-enter the building and retest on every floor for asbestos. A court date in State Supreme Court in Manhattan is tentatively scheduled for Friday.

Depending on whether more testing is allowed, the group could continue to push for the school's complete closure.

Oestreicher, who expects the school to remain open, said more abatement isn't necessary.

"From a facilities perspective," he said, "they are ready for occupancy."

Health worries

Whatever the outcome, Franklin Martinez, 31, whose 7-year-old twins have attended the school for two years, said he's worried about his daughter, Xena. She became ill sometime last year, he said.

Xena was relatively healthy before she began attending PS 132, her father said. Last year, she had her throat operated on after months of battling phlegm and asthma and coughing every day, he said.

"Doctors told us it was hereditary," Martinez, a truck driver, said in Spanish. "But my wife and I don't have that. And we checked, and nobody in our family ever had problems like that."

After the asbestos incident at PS 132 in May, Martinez said Xena had to miss school a lot, and complained every morning about throat pains. But since school ended in June - and, Martinez believes, since she's been away from PS 132 - Xena's gotten better, with her throat pains subsiding and her breathing coming more easily.

"We're looking for another school right now," he said in a frustrated tone. "I hope we can find one."

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