Underage Crew Cleans Asbestos in Schools

Magazine cover reading "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 3/4, "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards." Find more from that issue here.

On May 24, 1987, Florida Today revealed that a Dade City contractor had hired underage black teenagers from a high-school football team to remove cancer-causing asbestos from seven Brevard County public schools. Reporter Ann Mittman worked for months to check out a tip and conducted her investigation without the cooperation of the school board, which thought no wrongdoing was involved. 


Melbourne — Underage black teenagers from a West Honda high school were hired by a Dade City contractor last summer to scrap cancer-causing asbestos off the overhangs and ceilings of seven Brevard County public schools. At least seven youths, ranging in age from 15 to 18, worked for CNH Construction, Inc., of Dade City between early June and late August, 1986, according the company records provided to the Brevard County School Board and based on information from interviews with the boys and four of their parents. 

The boys, all living in Dade City, said 20 of their friends and teammates also worked for the company. Most of the teens were members of the Pasco Comprehensive High School varsity and junior varsity football teams in Dade City. Three boys said they took the summer jobs because they thought they would be staying in plush hotels, earning $14 to $15 an hour, and spending weekends driving company cars to entertainment. 

The boys were housed in two Melbourne motels where police records show that officers responded repeatedly to calls of disturbances, assaults, prostitution, and drug dealing. The boys said they were paid $4.75 to $5 an hour to scrape asbestos 10 to 12 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week inside school buildings encased in plastic. And when they wanted entertainment, they walked. 

The teenagers said they were not trained to use respirators properly to protect their lungs from toxic asbestos fibers, and most of them did the work without the masks. Because it was unbearably hot inside work areas, they said they were told they could cut off the arms and legs of their coveralls, exposing their skin. While working in Brevard, one teen said they were warned not to talk to reporters or they would be punished and sent home. 

When they were employed, the boys said they did not receive medical examinations as required by federal laws and the company's contract with the Brevard County School Board. They signed documents stating they would not sue the contractor if they acquired cancer. 

Asbestos, which was used in insulation materials and ceiling and floor tiles in buildings built before 1970, was banned for use in construction in 1978. Federal laws now mandate that public school officials must inspect their buildings for asbestos and remove any material hazardous to the occupants. Inhaling asbestos fibers can cause lung cancer; asbestosis, a scarring of lung tissue that diminishes breathing capacity; and mesothelioma, a cancer in the lining of the chest or abdominal cavity. 


Gerry and Isa Ransom of Dade City said they found out about the asbestos-removal jobs through Rick Giles, a man hired during the football season as an assistant football coach. Giles occasionally works for CNH and is a part-time employee of the Pasco County School District. 

"Being the football coach, you do not think he will put the kids in jeopardy," said Isabelle Ransom, the teens' mother. Giles, who lives in Dade City, could not be reached for comment "When I found out that they did not have physicals or anything I went and got my children," Ransom said. "If I had known they were working around asbestos I would not have let them go." 

"It was so hot that people would pass out and fall down," said Gerry, now 18, who scraped asbestos with Isa, now 19, for three weeks before their mother took them home. The youths said they did not receive medical physicals last summer as required under OSHA asbestos regulations. "All they told us was that it [asbestos] was harmful," Isa said. "That is the only important piece of information they gave us. They did not say it was that harmful. They told us if we lived to see 70, we might get cancer. An inspector told us we were dumb for working there and that we were being underpaid." He could not remember the inspectors' name. 

There are no state laws in Florida requiring contractors to be licensed to do asbestos removal. They must hold a construction license and must follow federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines for training workers to remove asbestos and use their protective gear. 

Gerry said he was not trained. "You just watched people doing it, then you did it," he said. Isa said they were not shown how to use the respirators, but told to "change the air filters when you feel like you cannot breathe." 


While Florida's child labor laws prohibit anyone under 18 from working with toxic substances, the boys said no one asked them for their birth certificates or drivers' licenses. There are no federal or state laws requiring that contractors demand birth certificates or driver licenses, Ron Hubbard, vice president for CNH, said during a telephone interview. Workers only need to provide a social security number and state their age, he said. 

"We are not aware there was any violation of the child labor laws," Hubbard said. "We would not knowingly put ourselves in that position. We hire a lot of minority individuals and we pay them a good wage and they do a good job for us." The seven students interviewed said they did not lie about their age. 

"Sixteen- and 17-year-old kids cannot be around toxic substances," said Betty Smith, labor employment and training specialist for the Florida Department of Labor. No complaints were filed with the state, she said. But even if a complaint were filed, Smith said she cannot enforce the $500-a-day fine for violating the law because she runs a one-woman operation. 

"The state has never really prosecuted anyone for child labor law violations," she said. "There has not been a case that has been that bad. Usually we just warn them." Federal labor laws do not specifically prohibit children older than 15 from handling toxic substances unless they are radioactive, said a U.S. Department of Labor spokesman. 

Ed Palagyi, state asbestos coordinator for the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation, inspected the work sites on July 24, 1986, and found no violations of department regulations. He also inspected at least two other times after the July visit. He said he did not notice the workers' ages because that is not within his jurisdiction. 

An OSHA inspector also visited a work site July 24, 1986, and found no violations of that federal agency's regulations. Larry Falck, OSHA's area director based in Tampa who worked in his youth removing asbestos, said the company was complying "to the letter," according to his inspector's reports. "Personally, if they [teenagers] are adequately protected and following our standards then there are no problems," Falck said. "I have no problem with the ages as long as the company is following correct procedures." 

"No matter what anybody tells you, there is no justification to using kids to remove it," said Jim Littell, regional asbestos coordinator for the EPA in Atlanta.