BY CLAIRE PARKER AND EMMA BUZBEE, MANAGING EDITOR AND JUNIOR EDITOR:
When art teacher Mary Lambert began teaching at Wilson in 2011 she did not imagine that two years later the job would literally take her breath away. Exposure to large quantities of clay and dust in a classroom lacking adequate ventilation has left Lambert with asthma, thousands of dollars in medical bills, and a persistent problem that government agencies have yet to fix.
Lambert teaches Sculpture 1 and 2, Intro to Ceramics, Ceramics 2, and Intro to Art and Design, with about 20-30 students in each class. Her students like Lambert as a teacher and enjoy working with clay, wood, and other materials to make pottery and sculptures. But there is a downside to these seemingly fun and carefree art classes.
Lambert was diagnosed with work-induced asthma on December 5. She began worrying about her health in the fall, when she started having trouble breathing in her classroom. Lambert took her complaint to Wilson business manager Ajibade DaSilva and Principal Pete Cahall, writing in an email on November 18 that “the room is covered in clay, I’m getting increasingly worried for my health because of dust. We clean constantly and I’ve discussed with [Custodian Steve] James, but it’s more than we can stay on top of.”
While some action was taken, Lambert’s breathing problems did not go away. Her doctor also informed her that asthma will continue to plague her as long as she works at Wilson.
Dust in the Classroom
Clay used in Lambert’s ceramics class and the wood, foam, paper, and plaster used in her sculpture class produce large quantities of dust on surfaces and in the air. The dust diminishes air quality and makes breathing difficult. While proper ventilation and cleaning can prevent or help ameliorate these problems, “the room was not set up the way it should have been,” Lambert said.
“We have one small vent system in the corner and we need more,” she said. “What we need is a HEPA filter put into the exhaust system. It filters out smaller particles in the air. It is what is usually recommended for clay dust.”
For a while before Lambert was diagnosed, the existing exhaust system was not functioning properly due to an electrical problem which has since been fixed. But Lambert is still feeling the effects.
Clay dust is a well-known cause of work-induced asthma, also called occupational asthma, according to Dr. Jalil Ahari, a pulmonary specialist at George Washington University Hospital.
“When you are exposed to these respirable pieces, and you breathe them, they go into your lungs, they sit in your lungs, and then they cause…an allergic reaction, which shows itself as asthma,” Ahari said. He explained that once the body becomes sensitized to the offending particles, it will react every time it comes into contact with them.
Silica, a particular type of mineral in ceramics clay, can be especially harmful. Cumulative exposure heightens the risk of developing a condition called silicosis, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). An NIH study showed that the more students working in a classroom, the higher the concentration of silica in the air.
There are two types of silicosis: chronic and acute. Neither is curable. Chronic silicosis develops after 20-30 years of exposure and “entails symptoms such as shortness of breath, dry cough, emphysema, and high susceptibility to lung infections such as tuberculosis,” according to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UW-M) art safety publication.
In her original email complaint to DaSilva and Cahall, Lambert expressed worry about developing this condition. “Rather than wait for the condition to happen, I would like to be proactive, and make a difference without having to leave the job,” she wrote. After testing negative for silicosis since then, Lambert is less worried about it. However, she could still develop the condition in the future if she continues to teach at Wilson unless action is taken.
Apart from silicosis, the NIH wrote that there is also an “association between exposure to crystalline silica and the development of lung cancer.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer officially classified crystalline silica as a human carcinogen, a cancer-causing agent. And according to Lambert, “Most clays contain crystalline silica. I do not see it specifically listed on the clay we buy, but most do so I can only assume ours does.”
Ahari estimated that it takes years or even decades of exposure to develop cancer, but, “Nobody knows,” he said. “The more exposure you have, the more chances that you may develop some sort of cancer.”
Are students in danger? “It depends on what is the concentration of those materials in the air, and what exactly those materials are,” said Ahari. “It may actually cause [sickness] if there is a significant amount of exposure in that place. We just don’t know.”
The Ventilation Problem
The dust problem could be fixed with proper ventilation. While they do not legally need to adhere to any requirements, ceramics classrooms should be built with certain ventilation systems and filters. UW-Milwaukee recommends installing “an effective local exhaust ventilation at the wedging table to reduce potential for exposure to silica, and use wet methods to clean the table or use a vacuum cleaner equipped with a HEPA filter.”
Efforts to fix the dust problem have fallen short so far. Occupational Safety and Health Administration employee Lyn Penniman said OSHA does not regulate indoor air quality overall.
In November Lambert contacted OSHA, which then re-directed her to the DC Department of General Services (DGS), responsible for managing DC government facilities including Wilson. DGS sent environmental protection specialist Roe Milam to do a walk-through of Lambert’s classroom. Contacted by The Beacon, Milam said he was instructed by his supervisor not to speak to the media.
Milam wrote to DaSilva on November 25, that “the room has been cleared, however an additional work-order has been placed for repair of the existing exhaust fan, which is an electrical issue. Presently, from here on out, the room will need direct attention from the custodial staff — wet-mopping daily.”
DaSilva designated Lambert’s classroom as a high priority for the custodial staff. Lambert says the custodial and administrative staff at Wilson have been very responsive.
The government agencies responsible for dealing with the situation are a different story.
Ahari stressed that government agencies are responsible for responding to cases of occupational asthma, and they must “measure the concentration of the particular particles that you think are causing the problem.”
That is not as easy as it sounds. The level of attention to the situation “should be priority,” said DaSilva, “yet you have so much bureaucracy that doesn’t allow the wheels to turn as quickly as you would like. If I had the resources and authority [to fix the problem], it would have been done by now.”
Identifying which agency does have that authority was a challenge, and once identified, communicating with them was just as difficult. DGS did not respond to The Beacon’s inquiries.
“[DGS] needs to figure out how to install additional exhaust or enhance existing exhaust to be able to alleviate the nuisance dust,” said DaSilva. “If you think about it, it’s still present. They’re just doing band-aid work.”
After the November 25 inspection, DGS said info on repair of the current exhaust system and the addition of another one would be forthcoming. As of March 21, DaSilva still had not heard anything from them on the subject.
DGS wrote in an email to Lambert that they would do a follow-up inspection in December. They are just now talking about setting a date for that follow-up. No action has been taken since the end of November. “DGS is slow in my opinion, very slow to respond to these things,” said DaSilva.
Consequences of Lambert’s Illness
In the meantime, Lambert has spent $2,000 on doctors visits and treatment for her asthma that her DCPS health insurance plan does not cover. She said that she cannot visit the doctor about her condition anymore because she cannot afford it. Lambert carries an inhaler, but has had to miss at least one day of work because she felt unable to breathe in her classroom.
Lambert could file for workers’ compensation, a type of insurance that provides protection to employees if they get injured on the job by paying their medical bills and salary for days they miss due to illness or injury. She has the grounds to take legal action such as this, but thus far has opted not to.
“That’s her being a team player,” said DaSilva. “So now DCPS and DGS, are they following in suit? They need to step up to the plate and do right by their professionals and their students that they serve.”