The brutal winter storms affecting most of the U.S. bring more dangers than just freezing temperatures and icy roads.
Snow, freezing rain and weather forecasts in the single digits can also affect building materials containing deadly asbestos.
For example, a Massachusetts elementary school remains closed after a pipe burst over the holiday break and damaged asbestos ceiling tiles.
Fitchburg Public Schools Superintendent Andre Ravenelle said Crocker Elementary School will be closed until at least Friday as the building undergoes remedial work.
“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,” Ravenelle said in a statement.
Winter weather and natural disasters can damage asbestos-containing building materials, which may release toxic asbestos fibers into the air. Breathing in these fibers may lead to serious diseases later in life, including lung cancer and mesothelioma.
According to a recent study released by the Massachusetts School Building Authority, Crocker and Longsjo Middle School had the lowest score in the “building condition” category.
Students from six classrooms at Longsjo had to be moved this week after the heating system stopped working.
Meanwhile, classes had to be relocated at Fitchburg High School after a burst sprinkler soaked ceiling tiles in several rooms during the holiday break.
Reingold Elementary School is also closed this week after officials discovered the pipes were frozen.
The incident at Crocker is the only involving damaged asbestos materials, according to district officials.
“We have done millions of dollars of upgrades in infrastructure, nevertheless we still have old systems and now we have record-breaking cold,” School Committee member Sally Cragin told the Sentinel & Enterprise.
Efforts to raise funding to renovate or rebuild Crocker Elementary School began last year, but officials said even if all goes well, it could take five years to complete.
In November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it awarded a total of $631,000 to Massachusetts and four other New England state agencies to ensure schools prepare an asbestos management plan and carry out inspections for asbestos-containing materials.
While it is a start, there are still limitations facing local school districts such as Fitchburg.
Cragin told the Sentinel & Enterprise a review is needed of the funding formula on the state level, calling it a “long and arduous process for communities such as Fitchburg that have great needs.”
Longsjo’s 80-year-old roof is in desperate need of repair or replacement, so much so that students have been moved out of the top floor of the middle school indefinitely because of leaks. School officials have requested $1.5 to $1.8 million in funding for that project alone.
Ravenelle assured parents no students were affected by the incident at Crocker and the decision to close the school was made “after much deliberation and in an abundance of caution for all involved.”
Depending on the how long remedial work takes, the cancellation could be extended or may bring a temporary relocation of students and staff.