A school in Maldegem in East Flanders that was closed by the town’s mayor after the discovery of asbestos is likely to remain closed for two weeks, mayor Bart Van Hulle said. The asbestos was discovered by accident during renovation works on a nearby sports centre, but only identified after workers had moved materials and trampled over the site. Under normal circumstances, asbestos should be identified before works begin, and then left undisturbed until it can be cleared away by a specialist firm.
Asbestos, widely used during the 20th century as an insulation and fire resistant material, is made up of crystals of six minerals, that can be released into the air in the form of fibres known as fibrils, which when breathed can be extremely damaging to health.
On Thursday a video was posted online showing a workman wearing no protective clothing jumping on an asbestos panel to break it into pieces small enough to fit inside a skip parked close to the school; on Friday samples were taken from the daycare adjoining the school and the sports centre, and 11 out of 14 samples tested positive for asbestos.
The school and daycare were closed by order of the mayor, and safety measures taken. The buildings were sprayed with water to bring down the dust suspended in the air, and the works covered with tarpaulins to prevent further spread, while a specialist firm moved in to remove the asbestos and dispose of it safely.
Local residents were advised to keep doors and windows shut, and to turn off any ventilation. Samples were taken from houses in the local area to see if the safety perimeter around the school needed to be extended. The results of those tests are awaited.
“The school will be closed for certainly a week to two weeks,” said mayor Van Hulle. Work on the sports centre started on 2 May. “For the time being there is nothing to suggest there was a problem earlier. The works were being visited daily by the municipal safety officer. We presume at this time that the rules were being followed.”
There is a risk some pupils or staff at the school may have been exposed to asbestos, explained Dr. Johan Vansteenkiste, specialist in respiratory oncology at the Leuven university hospital. “But they need not go straight to a doctor to be tested,” he told VRT News. “The fibres which may have been inhaled will never go away, but in most cases that is perfectly innocuous. If not, then the problem will only present itself in 30 or 40 years, in the form of lung cancer, cancer of the pleura or asbestosis.
“The fact that samples were taken in the neighbourhood and asbestos fibres found is cause for concern. The chance that children in the nearby school might later develop problems from exposure is small, but not non-existent.”