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Local contractor blows whistle on alleged asbestos issue at Ann Arbor elementary schools

Posted at 4:13 PM, Aug 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-26 18:19:53-04

(WXYZ) — A local contractor is blowing the whistle on what he says are some dangerous exposures to the cancer-causing material at some Ann Arbor elementary schools that have been under construction.

Ann Arbor Public Schools spent more than $3 million on renovations at the two schools over the summer.

We’re not using the contractor’s name or showing you his face in order to protect his job, but he wants to expose what happened during that construction.

“Do you feel like the students are safe,” 7 Investigator Heather Catallo asked the contractor.

“Not unless something’s done about it,” said the contractor.

Laboratory reports obtained by the 7 Investigators show asbestos-containing materials were found inside Angell Elementary and Burns Park Elementary.

“It’s on the lunch trays. It’s everywhere. It disperses like flour and it lands on surfaces and it stays there until someone turns on a desk fan, and now it’s in the air again … We worked in every part of that school, from the principal’s office to the cafeteria, to the gymnasium,” said the contractor of Burns Park.

Asbestos is a cancer-causing mineral that was once used in everything from insulation to ceiling tiles.

“You would not want the public breathing it in, definitely not children,” said Dr. Sarah Surber, an assistant professor with Wayne State University’s Department of Public Health. “When it’s disturbed it becomes friable, that just means it turns into a dust or the fibers are released … What happens is, you breathe them in, they go into the lungs and get trapped in the sacs in the lung, and that’s when you have a problem.”

Surber says asbestos can cause lung and stomach cancers.

“Let’s say you’ve done this remediation and you turn on the central air for the building. Then it can travel through the building. It’s really a problem once you disturb it and you do not remediate it the correct way, then you potentially have an ongoing problem,” said Dr. Surber.

This contractor says he and his fellow workers are upset because they were assured they were not working on asbestos-containing materials. But he says they later learned that wasn’t true.

“In our trade you learn to know what asbestos looks like and materials that have it in it, and we just know not to touch it and disturb it. But when you’re told what you’re working on doesn’t have it in it … All it would have taken is if they told us the correct information and tested things properly, we would have taken the proper precautions,” said the contractor.

He says workers pushed for additional testing, and even contacted the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) which started investigations at both schools.

“You were exposed,” asked Catallo.

“Yes,” said the contractor. “I drilled hundreds of holes upside down into a ceiling with powder falling directly onto me. So yeah, I was exposed a lot … I guess we’ll find out in 30 years what happens.”

Lab reports from tests done in July at Burns Park Elementary show asbestos was found in 10 different places throughout the school. The contractor says it’s also on a pipe that’s exposed in one of the student bathrooms, and on the places where tiles were attached to the ceiling.

He also says he’s concerned that students and teachers may have been present after the asbestos was disturbed at Angell Elementary.

Lab reports show tests were taken there back in November, and asbestos was found in ceiling plaster, in ceiling tile in the computer lab, in door caulk, and in a light heat shield. District officials say students later returned to that school in the spring.

A spokesman for Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy (EGLE) told the 7 Investigators that on July 6, 2021 during a routine site inspection, an abatement contractor told the EGLE inspector that asbestos-containing material had been disturbed by a subcontractor drilling holes in ceiling tile at Angell Elementary. State officials say the subcontractor had been unaware that the tiles contained asbestos. Those tiles could be an additional source of asbestos, since they are not referenced in the original lab reports done on Angell Elementary in November.

EGLE referred the matter to MIOSHA as a potential worker safety issue. EGLE officials tell the 7 Investigators that inspectors plan to return to both schools to ensure the abatement was done properly.

“Why was it so important for you to speak up,” asked Catallo of the contractor.

“For the children … and for the other workers I work with who were exposed, and then took that contamination home to their families,” said the contractor.

Ann Arbor Public Schools officials would not talk to us on camera, but Communications Director Andrew Cluely released this statement:

“The health and safety of our students, staff and community remains a top priority in the Ann Arbor Public Schools. During both the planning and the summer construction phases of the renovation projects at Angell Elementary and Burns Park Elementary, the AAPS team worked closely with environmental consultants. To ensure adherence to all requirements, the AAPS provided certified oversight of environmental contractors throughout each step of the process as well as testing during their work process and air and dust sampling.

AAPS completed appropriate testing, discovered areas where some asbestos-containing materials existed and addressed these areas according to applicable OSHA and EPA requirements as overseen by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, EGLE. The procedures include containment, abatement, continuous air monitoring as well as final clean-up dust sampling, and the buildings were cleared for re-occupancy by the environmental professionals.

In an abundance of caution, additional follow-up air and dust sampling testing is currently in process to be completed at both locations. Air sampling results are anticipated prior to the opening of school and dust sampling is being expedited with the third-party laboratory, and results will be publicly shared with the community.”

The 7 Investigators started asking questions of the district on Wednesday. On Thursday we observed remediation crews working at Burns Park Elementary. We have asked additional questions of the district about alleged possible exposure at Angell Elementary during the school year, we will let you know as soon as we have answers to our questions.

If you know of a site that contains asbestos or any other pollutant, EGLE has an emergency hotline you can call: 1-800-292-4706

If you have a story for Heather Catallo please email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com