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Stauffer: Health tests not necessary

A report saying students were exposed to asbestos in the 1970s is incorrect, the company says.

By ROBERT FARLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2001


TARPON SPRINGS -- Responding to a federal watchdog report, Stauffer Management Co. said Friday that during the late 1970s students at Gulfside Elementary School were not exposed to health risks from Stauffer's plant on the Pinellas-Pasco border.

Therefore, the company concludes, there is no need now to perform health tests on former students.

That is one of the major conclusions of a 33-page response from Stauffer to a report released in January by the ombudsman for the federal Agency on Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Ombudsman Ronnie Wilson's report concluded that public health officials did not use all available data when they downplayed, as recently as 1993, the public health hazards posed by Stauffer.

Among Wilson's findings was that while students face no health risks from the site now, Gulfside students may have been exposed to airborne asbestos from a slag-crushing pit near the school while the plant was in operation. Wilson recommended health checkups of some of the former students who attended the 700-student Gulfside Elementary School from 1977 to 1981.

From 1947 to 1981, the plant processed phosphate in a huge kiln to produce elemental phosphorus. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put the 130-acre site on its Superfund cleanup list in 1994.

The response released by Stauffer Management Friday disputes Wilson's findings as lacking scientific or factual support.

First, the response states, "the use of asbestos at the site had greatly decreased by the time Gulfside Elementary School opened on Jan. 30, 1978."

As for asbestos fibers being released during the slag-crushing operation, Stauffer Management's response contends the slag would not have contained asbestos fibers.

Any asbestos used at the plant would have been cooked into a non-hazardous substance in the plant's furnace prior to being dumped in the slag pit, the report states. Asbestos thermally decomposes at temperatures well below that in the plant's furnace, the report states.

"Asbestos used to pack the (furnace) electrodes would have decomposed into a non-asbestos, non-hazardous material as it was introduced into the furnace or the molten slag," the company contends.

Furthermore, the report states, Wilson's suggestion that students may have been exposed to other plant-related substances through the air is "at best speculative."

Stauffer Management's response concludes Wilson's recommendation to perform health studies of students who attended the school while the plant was in operation are unnecessary.

There is no "persuasive evidence" that the children at Gulfside were exposed to significant levels of toxic substances, nor is there any "credible scientific evidence that these children would have experienced any persistent adverse health effects that would be present today."

Wilson could not be reached for comment on Stauffer Management's response.

John Florence, a spokesman for ATSDR, said the agency is preparing a formal response to Stauffer Management's response, and that the agency's response will be released at an upcoming public meeting in Tarpon Springs. No date for that public meeting has yet been set.

- Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farley@sptimes.com.

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