CI News reporter Briar Douglas went on site at the school on Wednesday, to see how contract workers from T&M Heather have been progressing with the project.
For something so tiny, asbestos fibres can cause a lot of fuss.
Its recent discovery in the soil at Avarua School prompted the school to be shut down and has led to extensive excavation of the grounds, with the area off-limits to anyone not decked out in safety gear.
Once a popular building material, asbestos is safe if it stays undisturbed. But this naturally-occurring fibre that is not visible to the human eye is now known to be dangerous if it becomes airborne and is breathed in – and prolonged exposure can cause respiratory illnesses further down the track. Asbestos is serious business.
Even so, when I asked to enter the so-named ‘red zone’ during the removal of truckloads of contaminated soil at Avarua School, I hadn’t anticipated such a lengthy process.
The way into the red zone – the main grounds of the school – is past an office that has been turned into a makeshift testing station by Stuart Keer-Keer – a quality and technician manager for New Zealand-based K2 Environmental Ltd, a company that specialises in air quality testing and advice.
Keer-Keer, who also has his hands full with post-earthquake work in Christchurch, is currently in the Cooks investigating the extent of asbestos in the grounds around government buildings after finding the fibres in the air at Avarua School during a previous visit late last year.
It took a week to create the ‘red zone’ at Avarua – with black plastic sheets shielding classroom windows in the area as well as covering the fence around the school’s boundary, encircled with yellow ‘caution’ tape and a sign asking the public to keep out.
Everyone who enters the red zone needs to wear a mask that prevents dust – and asbestos fibres – from being breathed in.
But one size definitely does not fit all. Keer-Keer conducts a ‘fit test’ on each person who goes on the site – with some T&M Heather workers sent home to shave their faces smooth before the mask will fit snugly enough against their skin.
The test uses a piece of equipment – called a ‘portacount’ – that counts the particles in the air both outside and inside the mask, and compares the two. To pass, the particle count inside the mask needs to be 100 times lower than outside the mask.
“It’s like a seatbelt,” says Keer-Keer, in an analogy he must have recited hundreds of times. “You want to make sure it’s working before you need it.”
Keer-Keer connects a tube from the portacount to a mask, and has me strap the mask to my face.
The ‘fit test’ is really a series of tests, to check the mask works under different conditions – normal breathing, deep breathing to simulate physical activity, moving the head from side to side and up and down, and reaching down to touch the ground.
With the first two masks, I fail the tests miserably.
Is my face too small?
“Basically, yes,” says Keer-Keer with a hint of a smile – I’m a fair bit smaller than your average T&M Heather worker. “Small masks aren’t really something I budget for,” he adds.
I float the idea of sending along a reporter with a bigger face.
But Keer-Keer seems unconcerned, and with the third mask – a smaller model – strapped a little too snugly against my face in what feels like a vacuum-sealed fit, I fly through the tests.
After climbing into some ‘extra-large’ overalls – which unlike the masks can safely be deemed ‘one size fits all’ – to keep the dust off my clothes, Keer-Keer leads the way into the red zone.
Several times while wandering through the site – the sound of my own breath magnified in my ears by the mask on my face – I lose track of Keer-Keer among the other workers, unable to tell one person from another when at a distance; we’re all dressed in the same white overalls with our faces mostly eclipsed by the masks.
Having begun the work the afternoon before, the contractors have already dug trenches 300mm deep and 2 metres wide around the affected buildings – areas where you’d expect asbestos to be, says Keer-Keer, with the miniscule fibres washing off the old roof and onto the soil with rain over time, as the material around it gradually degraded.
In the Cook Islands though, it’s not as simple as that.
“Here, it rains a lot and the soil moves around,” says Keer Keer. He explains that rain gradually pushes soil from place to place – such as from the front to the back of a building. Over the years, people have dug up that soil and moved it back to where it was, or elsewhere, to keep the ground level.
This has left quite a jigsaw puzzle for Keer-Keer to solve – with some areas away from the buildings also testing positive for asbestos.
“It helps a lot talking to people, to find out what they’ve done,” he says. For instance, T&M Heather’s Jojo Heather shed light on one large asbestos-contaminated area well away from buildings, saying soil had been moved to that spot in the past.
To remove the soil from the site, contractors have been instructed to spray the soil with water before it is moved, to prevent dust. Once dug up, the dampened soil is loaded onto a truck bound for a disposal site at Arorangi, and covered with a tarpaulin.
No need to bag it up?
“I suggested they don’t use bags,” says Keer-Keer. “It means more handling, and it takes more time – they wouldn’t get it done in a week.”
The deadline for the work is the students being due back in class on Monday – one week later than the other schools opened on the island, to allow time for the work to be done.
The Cook Islands, like New Zealand and other countries, used asbestos in many older buildings – including in a type of roofing called Super 6. This material still exists on some buildings in the Cooks, but was removed from schools between seven and twenty years ago, with the exception of a school in Mangaia where removal of the material is still to be done.
The reason the asbestos at Avarua School – one of 11 areas where the air was tested last year by Keer-Keer – is a more urgent situation than other places is that the grounds have a lot of exposed dirt that is easily kicked up into the air, and being a primary school, the young students likely play in the dirt and dig it up.
Keer-Keer notes that people visiting the dental clinic in Tupapa (where air samples showed higher-than-normal, but not hazardous, levels of asbestos) probably don’t spend much time playing outside the building and disturbing the soil.
Keer-Keer accompanies me back out of the red zone, and we both unclip our masks. He tells me to keep mine.
“It’s good for any time there’s dust,” he says – though I can’t see myself pulling it out while vacuuming my house.
Keer-Keer isn’t sure how long he’ll be in the Cooks at this stage, with other schools – including those in Aitutaki, and perhaps other outer islands – on his list to be checked out during this visit. All islands in the Cooks had Super 6 on government buildings at some point.
While the testing is “not an exact science”, Keer-Keer says a very small amount of asbestos fibres can be found pretty much anywhere – but if there’s more than that, investigation is needed.
“Anything over background levels (of asbestos) means there’s a source of it somewhere,” he says, his mask still dangling around his neck. “It’s a logistically big exercise, but we need to find out why it’s there.”