March 03, 2010

Hazardous Materials in Schools:  A Hidden Problem

Excerpt from the article, Impediments to Implementing P2 in the Public Schools by Marina M. Brock

Environmental, health, and safety hazards in public schools are often serious — and difficult to address.

While interviewing a local fire prevention officer from one of our communities, I discovered that his major community concern regarding hazardous material was not what I believed it to be.  He removed from his cabinet a file that was about eight inches thick, and told me it was a written history of safety issues from our regional high school.  The file represented five years of effort to improve conditions that he felt were a problem.

Blinded by my own assumptions regarding our educational institutions, I didn’t believe him — but I humored him, wanting to get into his good graces.  We arranged an on-site interview at the high school, where I was sure I would be able to point out that the facility was not as much of a problem as his “untrained eye” could see.

Our first on-site interview was with the science supervisor, a 20-year veteran of high school science teaching.  While we were in his classroom discussing hazardous material management issues, a janitor worked quietly in the rear of the classroom sweeping the floor.  The science supervisor was pleased to tell us that he had been disposing of his “heavy metal acids” for years using the “Flynn Method,” by inerting them and pouring them into the sink, which connected to the “tight tank” outside his classroom.

I remember thinking to myself that the designers of the high school must have been incredible visionaries to have the forethought to install a tight tank in the early 1970s, when the facility was constructed.  Before I could ask about this, however, the heretofore silent janitor sheepishly mentioned that they didn’t have a “tight tank” at their school.  Obviously embarrassed, we all remained silent.  The “tight tank” mistake eventually resulted in a $55,000 environmental cleanup.

I soon discovered that my initial assumptions regarding the conditions at this school were grossly in error.  I was astounded at the lack of even a basic understanding regarding simple concepts of health, safety, and environmental compliance....

For the complete article go to Impediments to Implementing P2 in the Public Schools 

Marina M. Brock is a senior environmental specialist with the Barnstable County Department of Health and the Environment (BCDHE).