Teachers at NSW’s largest school made a horror discovery after demanding an investigation into dust falling from ceilings – and now say students’ lives are in danger.
Questions have been raised as to whether thousands of students and teachers at NSW’s largest high school may have been exposed to asbestos for years, even after a sample of the dust came back positive for the deadly material.
News.com.au can reveal that a major investigation is now underway into the circumstances surrounding Castle Hill High School’s test result, which came four years earlier before the NSW Department of Education announced asbestos had been discovered there in 2020.
Staff say they were so concerned about the white dust falling from the ceilings that they repeatedly begged the school to conduct tests, even going so far as to wipe it up in a zip-lock bag themselves and hand it over to the school.
“People were sweeping up dust from that teachers’ lounge, the library and other teachers’ rooms and taking it to the… [school] ask to have it tested for years,” a teacher told news.com.au.
“That sounds absurd and it is. People were like, ‘When are they going to test this damn dust? More of us fell today.”
One sample, taken from the Human Society and its Environment (HSIE) staff room in 2016, tested positive for both chrysotile, white asbestos and amosite, brown asbestos – considered one of the most dangerous – but staff was given too hear the test come back “completely clear”.
Although the report refers to asbestos, it is not stated whether the material posed an exposure risk.
The Certificate of Analysis from the Wollongong-based laboratory Clearsafe Environmental Solutions was presented to the school on July 29, 2016.
Minutes of the School’s WHS Committee meeting dated Aug. 1, 2016, read: “Ceiling in B5/HSIE Staff Room – Pieces Falling Where New Lights Installed – Samples Sent for Analysis. All Clear in Block B, Still Other areas in the school.
The teacher claimed that the use of “all clear” in the minutes “refers directly to the negative test”.
“Why, if the test came back positive, would? [the school] say it came back negative?”
Four years later, the Department of Education announced that during a “proactive inspection program” “previously unknown asbestos” had been found in the roof cavity of Castle Hill High School”, that remediation work had been completed and that there was a “low or negligible risk of exposure.” was “hazardous material in the air”.
“All work has been completed in accordance with SafeWork NSW regulations and a release certificate has been issued by an independent hygienist confirming that students and staff can safely occupy the rooms,” the department said at the time.
Several teachers subsequently complained to the Ministry of Education, saying they had expressed their concerns years earlier.
In April of this year, Georgie Fleming, principal of Castle Hill High School, told staff in an email that the education department was “recently notified” of the 2016 Certificate of Analysis.
Ms Fleming was not at the school when the tests were taken in 2016.
“From the information available to the department, it is not clear exactly where in the staff room the sample was taken or how it was taken,” she wrote.
“The certificate indicates that the sample consists of Fibrous Cement Sheeting (FCS) material and other fibres. The laboratory analysis detected the presence of chrysotile (white) and amosite (brown) asbestos fibers. The certificate has been issued to SafeWork NSW and the staff Health, Safety and Welfare department.”
SafeWork NSW is now investigating exactly who knew what and when to determine whether the school has violated its asbestos management policy.
The Directorate of Professional and Ethical Standards (PES) of the Department of Education is also conducting an investigation.
News.com.au understands that the 2016 document was not recovered until April 6 this year when PES researchers reconstructed staff email inboxes, after being tipped off in interviews with several complainants about the existence of the test. .
The 2016 test was hosted by a former assistant general, whose name appears next to the “all clear” comment in the WHS committee minutes.
There is no suggestion that he was guilty of any wrongdoing.
But asking the school’s General Assembly to arrange an asbestos test seems to violate official policy, which instructs schools to refer suspected cases to the Department of Education’s Asset Management Division.
†[The policy says] if staff reports dust, call this number and we’ll send someone in,” a second teacher told news.com.au.
After the 2016 test, multiple staff members logged requests in the school’s internal problem tracking system and demanded a copy of the results.
“No one has ever been shown the test,” said the first teacher.
“People have asked to see the test and said dust is still falling on us. Those were all noticed as seen, performed, completed, but they did nothing.”
In a post dated August 16, 2018, one woman wrote: “I would like to see the report regarding the testing of the particles falling from the ceiling. I have not seen the report. The particles keep falling over [the] last four years and I keep breathing them. There are a number of staff rooms with this complaint. I sit at my desk and breathe in these fine particles every day.”
The issue was marked “closed” by the school’s WHS official on December 6, 2018.
On November 16, 2018, another woman registered a report of pieces of vermiculite ceiling falling in the library, warning that “staff and students” were at risk.
“Pieces can fall on their heads and dust in their eyes,” she wrote. “What’s in the vermiculite? Does it contain asbestos?”
That listing was also marked “closed” several months later without any apparent response.
Earlier this month, a young Victorian woman won a state government payout after developing terminal cancer from inhaling deadly asbestos dust while attending Footscray North Primary School in the early 2000s.
Jasmine Thomas, 27, filed a civil claim for $2.1 million after doctors discovered multiple tumors while the mother-to-be underwent her first ultrasound.
The State of Victoria has accepted an undisclosed amount, the Herald Sun reported.
The second Castle Hill teacher said, ‘At some point everyone at school has lessons there, you can’t ignore it. They don’t know how much of the mess has fallen [if any]†
NSW Education Secretary Sarah Mitchell confirmed the “serious allegations” are under investigation.
“I was made aware of allegations regarding asbestos at Castle Hill High School last month,” she said in a statement to news.com.au.
“These are serious allegations that are the subject of investigation by both the Department of Education’s Professional and Ethical Standards Division and SafeWork NSW.”
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education said: “Remediation work at the school has been completed and air monitoring has been carried out in 2020 and 2021. The department is confident that there are currently no asbestos problems at the school.”
Castle Hill MP Ray Williams made a public statement on Tuesday.
“Last Thursday afternoon I met with teachers and parents from Castle Hill High School,” he said.
“At this meeting I was given information, including a positive test for asbestos that was conducted at Castle Hill High School in 2016. After this asbestos test in 2016 at Castle Hill High School, the school community was told it was (all clear) for asbestos, when in fact it was positive.”
While the test confirmed traces of asbestos in the building, it did not confirm whether there was an exposure risk.
“Teachers and parents believe that the health of students, teachers and staff at Castle Hill High School has been seriously affected after years of exposure to asbestos. CHHS teachers and parents have filed numerous asbestos complaints with the Department of Education in recent years, which have remained unanswered.
“As a member of Castle Hill, I have a responsibility to ensure the safety of my community.”
SafeWork NSW has been contacted for comment.