West Haven High School parents air health concerns at City Hall meeting
Despite repeated assurances that work to renovate and rebuild West Haven High School is safe, some parents of high school students remain concerned about possible asbestos and other issues.
Several parents expressed those concerns last week at a meeting in City Hall that they called to air their concerns, get answers from school, city and project officials and call for additional cleaning and testing of the high school.
They received additional verbal assurances from officials who attended, but nothing was resolved.
Superintendent of Schools Neil Cavallaro, Board of Education Chairwoman Rosemary Russo and acting Principal Dana Paredes attended the meeting Thursday night, although most of the talking on the city side came from Ken Carney, chairman of the West Haven High School Building Committee, and two consultants working on the project.
“The goal of everybody in this room is the safety of the kids” and “we have over 100 years of experience of special license people” who say the high school and the project are safe, said Carney.
About 24 people attended the meeting, of which four were parents of current high school students. One was the parent of a recently graduated high school student and two were the children of one of the parents.
They were outnumbered by the 11 or so Board of Education and city officials and the six or seven employees of the architects and consultants for the $130 million high school project.
Parent Marilyn Wilkes said she organized the meeting because after speaking to fellow high school parent Christine Barrington, “I just became aware of the issues at the high school and it extremely concerns me.”
She said she received voicemail messages from the BOE along with all high school families assuring her that there was no danger, but she remains unconvinced that past asbestos issues and abatement that took place in recent months have left the school safe for students, faculty and staff.
Wilkes, Barrington and others believe that more aggressive testing — and a more detailed test than the one that primarily has been used — is necessary to assure that the school is safe.
They also think the school, which had an asbestos scare following installation of security cameras and underwent abatement in two areas last spring and summer prior to construction, should undergo a thorough cleaning to ensure no asbestos lingers.
“My understanding is that the testing that was done at the high school was done because it was inexpensive and quick,” Wilkes said, referring to what’s known as PCM, or Phase Contrast Microscopy, testing.
There are two primary testing methods: PCM (Phase Contrast Microscopy) and TEM (Transmission Electron Microscopy), according to the websites of several testing companies.
Both methodologies analyze for fiber concentration through pumping the ambient air into filtered air cassettes. PCM is quicker and less expensive because samples can be analyzed on-site. TEM, which is considered the more comprehensive method, requires an expensive electronic microscope, can cost five times as much and generally takes longer.
Consultants Richard Dunn of Dunn Environmental Inspections and Jim Twitchell of Hygenix Inc. assured the crowd that the PCM testing done was more than adequate to assure safety.
“She’s referring to the PCM as the ‘cheap test.’” said Dunn. “ I’m going to call it the ‘fast test.’”
Barrington, an attorney with two sons at the high school, said that much of what she has learned since she began looking into the issue concerns here.
“We have a Connecticut law that says you can’t abate asbestos when kids are in school unless you get a waiver from the Department of Health,” she said, but said she was told that the state Department of Public Health has never not granted a waiver.
Her greatest concern, she said, is that there hasn’t been enough of a barrier between workers abating asbestos and doing other demolition work and the general public.
“The biggest thing that came out as a concern for me was that in January, I showed up on campus for a swim meet” and with about 300 people there, “I noticed the excavators on the roof and they were ripping things up.”
She said she also has lingering concerns about asbestos management at the high school, and pointed out that every cinder block at the high school is coated with asbestos-containing paint.
“Long story short: We don’t have an indoor air-quality program” at the high school, Barrington said, calling for dust and mold testing as well as asbestos testing.
She said it concerns her that her younger son began having nosebleeds for the first time just two weeks after he started at the high school.
Things grew testy at times on both sides.
“I think we’re looking for something here that’s not here,” said Lou Esposito, executive assistant to Mayor Nancy Rossi. As a result of the renovation, “I think that high school is going to be safer than it ever was,” he said.
A little later, Russo said, “I want the parents to know that the Board of Ed does not take this stuff lightly,” but “there has to come a point where you say, ‘OK, the kids are safe.’”
She asked Barrington, “If things were found in West Haven High School, don’t you think we would” take action to fix the problem.
“Things have been found and you’ve done nothing!” Barrington responded.
A little later, Dunn asked her, “so you want to close the school for three or four months” to do all the sampling she thinks is necessary.
“Yes,” Barrington responded. “There are 1,500 kids in the school and two of them are my kids.”