Quality and technician manager Stuart Keer-Keer for K2 Environmental Ltd, which specialises in air quality testing and advice, said Avarua School is one of 11 areas where he tested the air for asbestos in September and early October. The school was the only area found to have levels high enough to be in the ‘red’ category, where there is a risk of exposure to asbestos.
Three other areas, Avatea School, the community dental clinic in Nikao and the Cook Islands Meteorological Service office, had asbestos levels in the ‘amber’ category – indicating levels above normal but not high enough to be considered hazardous.
Keer-Keer said the threshold for declaring asbestos a hazard is deliberately low, so that even relatively small amounts are investigated and dealt with to be on the safe side. However, he added even areas in the ‘amber’ category need to be investigated further, to determine why the asbestos particles are in the air.
Towards the end of September and in early October, Landholdings Ltd removed four container loads of asbestos roofing material from the former Kia Orana Foods factory in Avarua. As part of the process, Cook Islands Investment Corporation (CIIC) contracted Keer-Keer to fly to Rarotonga and monitor the air quality before and after the removal.
While on the island, he also took air and material samples from selected locations around Rarotonga – including Avarua School – to take back to New Zealand for testing.
His report on the results was received just over a week ago by CIIC, and secretary of education Sharyn Paio has subsequently decided to close Avarua School – the students of which are already on holiday until the end of January – while further testing is done.
With asbestos removed from schools on the island between seven and twenty years ago, Keer-Keer says the source of the hazard at Avarua is highly likely to be the soil, with asbestos particles that were mixed with roofing materials likely to have been gradually washed off the roof with rain as the material around it degraded.
Asbestos, which is only dangerous when it becomes airbourne, could have been released into the air when the soil was disturbed, such as by people walking across it or digging it up. Once airbourne, Keer-Keer said the tiny asbestos particles – not visible to the human eye – can stay in the air “for months”.
He said while the results of the test require action, it is good that it was discovered now rather than later.
“One good thing is, we’ve discovered the problem now, not 20 years down the track. Finding a problem means you can fix it.”
He said the first step in addressing the issue is to confirm that the asbestos is indeed from the soil with further testing. Samples will be taken from around Avarua School, as well as all other schools that previously had asbestos roofing materials.
Once identified as the source of the problem, the soil then needs to be removed or covered up – but Keer-Keer said covering it “leaves a legacy for future generations” who may unwittingly disturb the particles. It is likely any removed soil would still need to be buried somewhere in the Cooks, as taking soil overseas causes issues with customs.
He said people should be “cautious rather than worried” about the hazard.
“Just because someone’s been exposed to asbestos doesn’t mean they’re going to get sick. We’re all different, and it depends how much they’re exposed to and for how long.”
As for the other areas found with above normal levels of asbestos, Keer-Keer said they also need further investigation.
“They would pass clearance in New Zealand, but you still need to find out why it’s there.”
Air samples taken from the police station, New Zealand High Commission, House of Ariki/Koutu Nui, parliament, Minister Teariki Heather’s office, the airport and CIIC are in the ‘green’ category, or within the acceptable range.
It is expected Keer-Keer will return to Rarotonga in a few weeks after taking soil samples from Avarua School back to New Zealand for testing. During this visit, samples from other schools will be taken.