Demolition of Sehome’s old gym uncovers asbestos, but district says precautions taken

Demolition of the old gym building at Sehome High School has led to the discovery of more asbestos-wrapped pipes in the walls and flooring than anticipated, Bellingham Public Schools said, but the health of students and staff at the school has not been endangered.

According to information provided by Bellingham Public Schools Communications Manager Dana Smith in an email Monday to The Bellingham Herald, the district hired an industrial hygienist to survey the old building early in the construction process, and they inspected the site and made a hazardous materials report.

“This report has guided our work until we started abatement and demolition of the old building, when we discovered that some piping in walls and floors had more asbestos-wrapped pipes than the report had predicted,” Smith told The Herald, “although normal for a building of this vintage.”

Sehome High School opened for the 1966-67 school year, when asbestos still was considered a “magic mineral,” according to The Mesothelioma Center’s website asbestos.com. Its fibers are flexible and resistant to heat, electricity and chemical corrosion and it is an effective insulator that could be mixed in a variety of materials, including cloth, paper, cement, plastic and other materials to make them stronger.

The danger, according to the website, is asbestos’ microscopic fibers can be easily inhaled or swallowed and remain in the body, eventually causing inflammation, scaring and even genetic damage to the body’s cells. In the United States, asbestos is still legal in all types of products as long as the material represents less than one percent of all materials used in the product, though the U.S. is one of the only major industrialized nations not to ban it.

Smith said the asbestos found at Sehome did not pose a danger to students or staff at the school when it was being used because the asbestos was not exposed.

“Because these items were all covered by wall or flooring when the gym building was in operation, staff and students were never in any danger of asbestos exposure,” Smith told The Herald. “Asbestos is only a health hazard when it becomes friable, or powder-like.”

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The Sehome girls’ basketball team cheers together in a hallway outside the gym before a 2011 game against Anacortes. Demolition of the old gym building at Sehome High School has uncovered more asbestos-wrapped pipes in the walls and flooring than anticipated, the school district says, but the health of students and staff has not been endangered. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

The district also has a trained, qualified asbestos abatement contractor on site as materials from the old school are removed during the nearly two-year-long project, which was approved by voters as part of a $160 million facilities bond in 2013. Classes are scheduled to be held in Sehome’s new building beginning Jan. 30.

Smith said the abatement contractor is following all state and federal regulations for the removal of asbestos, which is being overseen by a third-party professional hygienist. When asbestos-containing materials are uncovered during demolition, work stops until the material is either encapsulated or removed without the asbestos fibers crumbling.

Air samples also are taken throughout the process, Smith said, ensuring safety for all involved.

“Safety is our primary concern, and we will not expose any students, staff or community members to any potentially hazardous material,” Smith said.

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.