Ottawa schools rife with asbestos

CBC has produced a map of more than 200 schools in Ottawa that contain asbestos materials. Health and safety advocates, parents and board staff want people to be aware of the potential danger and learn how to prevent exposure.

More than 200 schools in Ottawa contain the toxic building material

This map developed by CBC details all schools in Ottawa that contain asbestos materials. Each of the four Ottawa-area school boards provided CBC with a current list of buildings containing asbestos. Boards are responsible for following strict provincial rules for monitoring the condition of asbestos in their schools. Further information and asbestos reports are supposed to be available at each school.

Blue markers: Ottawa Carleton District School Board, Yellow markers: Ottawa Catholic School Board, Purple markers: Conseil des ecole publique de l'est de l'Ontario, Green markers: Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est.

The teacher

Every school Kim Appel taught at over her 20-year teaching career contained asbestos. Every one.

That's not surprising, though, when you consider that more than 200 schools in Ottawa were built with the ubiquitous construction material in their floors, ceilings, walls and pipes.

Appel, now a health and safety rep with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, isn't afraid of getting sick because she knows how to protect herself from exposure to asbestos.

But she has witnessed first-hand the deadly effects of the toxic material, and has become an advocate for the public's right to know exactly where asbestos lurks.
Kim Appel is a teacher who now works as a health and safety rep with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation. (CBC)

"In Ottawa, a good friend of mine ... did die from mesothelioma," said Appel, referring to a teacher who worked at Sir Robert Borden High School. "He's only been in one school — his only job that he ever did for 40 years. So [asbestos] seems to be a likely scenario for it."

Appel has heard other stories about teachers across the province who were exposed to asbestos years ago and who have become sick.

She becomes emotional and gets what she calls "tingles" when she talks about it.

"Those are the reasons why we do what we do … that their deaths weren't in vain."   

Between the 1930s to the mid-1980s asbestos, considered a good fire retardant and insulator, was wrapped around pipes, covered gym ceilings and used in plaster walls and flooring glue.

It's now considered a toxic carcinogen, and the federal government has taken steps to ban the use and import of asbestos materials in this country.

Asbestos can be contained safely as long as it's not disturbed, but Ottawa schools built as long ago as 1895 need constant repair, renovation and upgrades.

"Even to update lights, update ceilings, updates ceiling tiles, we start to disturb things," said Appel.  

She said keeping schools safe requires constant communication and coordination between school boards, staff and unions.

"We're starting to work together and we're starting to do awareness," said Appel. "It's not something that we're saying we're perfect at or that it's got there yet."

The board

The Ottawa Carleton District School Board is the city's largest, so it's no surprise it has the most schools — some 115 — that contain asbestos.

"I don't think there's a meeting that we have as a management group in facilities that asbestos issues don't come up," said Mike Carson, the board's superintendent of facilities. "We can manage it. We are making sure that we're holding ourselves accountable, not only with the Ministry of Labour regulations, but also our own policies."

Mike Carson is Chief Financial Officer with the Ottawa Carleton District School Board. (CBC)
Those policies include maintaining up-to-date inventories in every school, usually available in the chief custodian's office. Carson said right now those reports are only on paper, and aren't digitalized or available online.

Any time a company is contracted to do repairs or work in a school, the "designated substances manual" or asbestos inventory is supposed to be provided to the workers. It's up to the board and its inspectors to make sure those reports are updated.

Carson said in any given year, the board will spend $20 million to $25 million on facilities, and a portion of that money is used for asbestos removal.

But he said asbestos will remain in many of Ottawa's schools for years to come, so openness is key.

"I think the communication goes a long way, to not only calm people, but help them help us if they see a problem," said Carson. "People need to know what the risks are, what we're doing to minimize the risk, and if they have concerns that we can respond promptly."

The parent

Claire Todd probably knows more about all the places asbestos can hide in a school than she ever wanted to know.

The mother of twins in Grade 5 and a member and former co-chair of the parent council at Broadview Public School, Todd still has hundreds of pages of asbestos reports on her desktop computer.
Claire Todd sits on the parent council at Broadview Public School in Ottawa. (CBC)

"I was concerned about it, because there had been things that happened at Broadview that would disturb the asbestos," said Todd, scrolling through the files. "When I first started reading that document, asbestos kept coming up."

Beyond asbestos, Broadview's extensive problems included lead pipes, a fire and floods that prompted the decision to build a new school on adjacent property. Demolition of the original building began last week, after the asbestos contaminants were removed.

I think if I were a parent and my kids were in a school that was having a big renovation done, I would want to know.- Claire Todd, parent

While Todd believes in vigilance when it comes to asbestos, she doesn't think parents or kids should be worried.

"I just want to make sure people don't feel really scared that their school contains asbestos because I think that it's in the school board's best interest to make sure everybody's safe, the workers and students," said Todd.

If parents are concerned, she said, they just need to ask for the information in the reports.

"I think if I were a parent and my kids were in a school that was having a big renovation done, I would want to know."
The demolition of the old Broadview Public School building started last week. (CBC )

The law

A proposed law that goes to second reading debate at Queen's Park this month calls for a ban on the use, reuse, import, transport or sale of asbestos in Ontario.

The legislation would also require the Ministry of Labour to create a register of all provincially owned or leased buildings containing asbestos.

In December the federal government announced a similar registry for federal buildings, to be in place by next year.

The takeaway

There's still work to do within the school system to boost awareness about asbestos. For Kim Appel, that job begins at home.

"I talk to my kids about it. They're teenagers. They're in an old school. They know because of what I do as my job," said Appel. "They know that I've been into their school when there have been projects on and I have been there to watch as they're testing the air quality."

The lists and reports aren't complete: the Ministry of Labour has been called to various school board sites after contractors discovered asbestos without being warned first, Appel said.

Still, she doesn't want people to fly off the handle when they hear the word "asbestos."

"We can ask, what condition is it in? Where is it found? What things do I need to be aware of? Is it safe to hang things from the ceiling? Those are questions that we would want people to know that maybe they should be asking to protect themselves just to be safe and healthy."

The asbestos report for Ottawa Carleton District School Board administration building on Greenbank Road. (CBC)