“Potentially Hazardous” material was discovered in a storage room at New South Wales’ largest high school, prompting the area to be cordoned off until specialist contractors could remove the box – which was only noticed when white powder appeared to be what is believed to be traded asbestos, fell on it.
Castle Hill High School has been embroiled in an asbestos scandal since last year, news.com.au reports unveiled for the first time that thousands of students and teachers could have been exposed to the deadly building material for years, even after a dust test came back positive.
News.com.au can now reveal that a red crate labeled ‘Yellowcake’ was discovered in a locked science storage room last week, prompting school officials and the Department of Education to dodge what was happening another embarrassment.
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“In the 1960s there was yellowcake, which was used to test for radiation,” explained one teacher. “They pulled it out and the kids used radiation counters and said, ‘Yes, that’s radioactive.'”
The teacher said, “Somehow it was put in a red box and left in the storage room,” where it lay unnoticed for decades. “The red box stayed there forever until some white powder fell on it,” he said.
“The level of incompetence is staggering.”
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“The storage room remains isolated and secured”
In an email to all staff last Monday, Headteacher Georgina Fleming wrote: “Please note that the scientific chemical storage room is cordoned off and entry is restricted until further notice. School infrastructure is testing suspected asbestos and other materials.”
It was then confirmed that the white powder contained no asbestos.
The NSW Department of Education confirmed in a statement Tuesday night that it had “discovered potentially hazardous material in a locked science building storeroom at Castle Hill High School on 30 August 2023”.
“The storage room was not accessible to students and the material was in a sealed box and was believed to have been used to support scientific experiments in the past,” a spokeswoman said.
“In line with labor, health and safety regulations, the stockroom will remain isolated and secured pending material testing and removal by an appropriate authorized contractor this weekend.”
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Science lessons continue “unaffected”.
The spokeswoman said an industrial hygienist inspected the science pad and found it “safe for normal use”. “The storage room in question is not in a classroom,” she said.
“Science classes for all grades continue unaffected. Parents and carers of the students were notified by email on August 30 from Castle Hill High School. As always, the health, safety and welfare of the school and the local community are our top priority.”
Yellowcake, a type of uranium concentrate powder, emits very little radiation and poses a low risk, but can be dangerous when inhaled.
“For safety reasons, only basic radiation protection measures are required,” said one transport security officer at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), explained in a bulletin from 2018.
Last year, news.com.au revealed that a sample of dust from a staff room had tested positive for asbestos in 2016, but teachers at the time were told the test was “all clear”.
It wasn’t until four years later that the department announced that a “proactive” inspection had discovered “previously unknown asbestos” in the roof void – sparking outrage from teachers, who said they had raised concerns about the white dust falling from the ceilings For years, even going so far as to “sweep it in a ziplock bag” himself and give it to the school.
“People swept up dust from this staff room, the library and other staff rooms and took it to the school [school] I’ve asked for it to be tested for years,” said one teacher at the time.
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Previous school problems with asbestos
Several staff had entered requests into the school’s internal issue tracking system, demanding to see a copy of the 2016 results, but “no one was ever shown the document”.
Following the Department of Education’s 2020 announcement, several teachers complained that they had raised concerns years earlier – sparking an internal investigation by the Directorate for Professional and Ethical Standards (PES).
The explosive 2016 test certificate was only recovered last April when PES investigators reconstructed employees’ email inboxes after being alerted to the test’s existence in interviews with several complainants.
The certificate of analysis from Wollongong-based laboratory Clearsafe Environmental Solutions, presented to the school on July 29, 2016, confirmed the presence of chrysotile, white asbestos, and amosite, brown asbestos – one of the most dangerous species.
Although the report referred to asbestos, it did not say whether the material posed a risk of exposure. Asbestos exposure can lead to long-term lung damage and certain types of cancer that typically don’t appear for decades.
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School discovery triggers investigation
SafeWork NSW launched an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the test to determine whether the school had breached asbestos management policies.
According to news.com.au, the investigation is still ongoing.
SafeWork NSW was contacted for comment.
The revelations sparked outrage among parents and led to an inquiry in the state parliament last September that said the school’s long-term risk of exposure was considered low, but that there were “misjudgments” on the part of school administrators and school staff occurred. Proper procedures were not followed.
“Unfortunately, in this case the school did not contact the asset management unit in a timely manner and AMU’s help and expertise were not immediately sought,” said Anthony Manning, Managing Director of School Infrastructure NSW the request, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.
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“We have lost all faith in the school”
Parents Elizabeth Madders told the inquiry the community has been kept in the dark and has experienced a “wall of silence” over the saga.
“We have lost all faith in the school, the Department of Education and the school infrastructure,” she said.
“Parents were asked to accept the unacceptable. Parents send their kids to school thinking, ‘Is today the day they’re going to breathe deadly asbestos into their lungs?’”
The Department of Education states that there are currently no asbestos problems at the school.
Originally published as Startling discovery at the state’s largest high school