The historically cold winter weather – which spread throughout the Midwest and has now gone as far south as Dallas, Texas – has been wreaking havoc across the U.S. for over a week. And in certain parts of the country, the cold is showing no signs of letting up anytime soon.
Due to the frigid temperatures, buildings and homes have had pipes freeze and burst, commuters have found their commutes unbearable or unsafe, and towns and cities in a number of states have been wracked by power outages. The arctic air, which has been pushed south from Canada, has also forced the closure of many schools, extending winter breaks and keeping kids at home.
New England Hit Hard: With Frozen Pipes, Asbestos Risk Could Increase
Armed with thousands of snowplows and a long lineage of residents who know how to handle the cold, New England is primed and ready for its annual harsh winter. But even in Massachusetts, the cold temperature is on the verge of setting new state records. And as if the abnormally cold winter weather wasn’t enough, this week saw the closing of 2 Fitchburg, MA elementary schools due to asbestos scares.
In an announcement via Twitter, school administrators canceled all classes in these 2 schools and shuffled some of their classes to other district schools, citing several consecutive days of extreme temperatures that inflicted damages upon school buildings. The extreme weather has rendered some classrooms unable to heat up, pipes and sprinklers to be both frozen and burst, and all running water to cease.
Fitchburg Superintendent Andre Ravenelle announced that school officials found burst steam pipes at both Reingold Elementary School and Crocker Elementary School. At Crocker Elementary, the burst pipe impacted several classrooms within the school, damaging ceiling tiles that contained asbestos, a deadly carcinogen.
Asbestos is the only known cause of the fatal cancer mesothelioma. It’s especially dangerous when it is disturbed (as through construction, renovation, or building damage), causing asbestos fibers to go airborne, where they can be inhaled.
In a released statement, Ravenelle said:
“We are working with the appropriate agencies and licensed experts to remediate the damage and ensure Crocker continues to be a safe, healthy environment for students, parents, educators, and staff.”
Crocker Elementary serves as a prime example of what could unfold in frozen schools across the country this winter. Most schoolhouses and buildings erected before the 1980s, were made with asbestos-containing products – in ceiling and flooring tiles, in pipes and pipe wrap, and insulation. Not all of these schools have been ridden of their asbestos yet, and therefore the deadly mineral lies dormant within them, waiting to be released.
As frozen pipes continue to burst, many other schools might see similar asbestos scares, increasing the risk for exposure for both students and school staff members in schools throughout the country.
Wait It out for a Week? A Month?
Extreme winter weather is slated to continue in Massachusetts, and will make for an historic January – by average, possibly the coldest month in recorded state history.
Crocker Elementary School will be closed from January 2nd until January 5th, but perhaps longer; until remedial work is completed. Meanwhile, parents of the children attending this school have been assured that their children are safe and that no one has been harmed.
Construction and asbestos abatement teams will now be working on the school until its reopening. According to Superintendent Ravenelle, the necessary work will include “thorough testing in all areas and confirmation from all required agencies that the building is safe for our school community.”