The term asbestos refers to a group of naturally occurring fibers commercially useful for their strength and fire resistance. For these reasons the fiber was often used as insulation and as an ingredient in many roofing, industrial and automobile component products in the past. Unfortunately, asbestos is now better known for being carcinogenic – with fatal consequences for those heavily exposed. Once inhaled, the fiber remains within the lungs and causes irritation. Over time, these fibers can lead to the development of diseases like asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer. While people are most commonly exposed to asbestos in workplace settings, schools buildings can also contain asbestos. Asbestos exposure in the school setting is even more concerning considering we trust schools to take care of our children.
Although asbestos is a naturally occurring substance present in small amounts in land, air and water, continued exposure on a regular basis can lead to illness. This happens commonly at the workplace, and is noted in shipbuilding and mining professions, as well as the construction and automotive industries. In fact, over 125 million people have been exposed to asbestos in the workplace, and, according to the World Health Organization, over 100,000 people die from asbestos related diseases each year.
Research recently brought attention to a particular profession seeing high rates of asbestos related diseases: teachers. A study conducted in the United Kingdom found many teachers were experiencing asbestos related illnesses from exposure to the fiber within schools.
Since many schools in the United States continue to contain asbestos in a variety of products – and because children spend the equivalent of a workday within these buildings – parents, teachers and government officials are taking another look at asbestos management in our nation’s schools.
Asbestos Present in Schools
A recent example of the presence of asbestos in schools in the United States was made apparent after the devastating tornado struck Joplin, Missouri. The tornado damaged many school buildings, and implementation of asbestos demolition practices reminded the community of the material’s presence within their children’s schools.
Joplin was not the first school to face asbestos related problems. In 2005, Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills, California, voiced community concern over student’s exposure to asbestos. A final report released by the Center for Disease Control Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found asbestos when updating the school’s sporting fields.
The report noted coaches and student athletes were at the highest risk of exposure and should contact their physician, “implement preventive care and watch for early signs of disease.”
In addition to asbestos in school buildings and athletic fields, it has also found in teaching devices. An Education Minister in the UK noted the presence of asbestos in a science kit used in their schools for over twenty years. These schools removed almost 160 kits but stated they believed that risk of exposure to students was minimal.
EPA’s Role in Keeping Children Safe
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes many schools used insulation that contained asbestos when they were first built. Although schools have the choice to remove the hazardous material, many instead chose instead to manage the asbestos already present in their buildings.
When undisturbed, the fibers remain intact and do not pose a great danger. However, the danger of exposure is present if the material is disturbed, damaged or deteriorates and fibers are released into the air.
The EPA has an asbestos program for schools in place called Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA). AHERA provides regulations for schools attempting to manage asbestos. A provision of the Toxic Substances Control Act, the law requires schools to inspect the premises for asbestos containing materials and reduce or eliminate the chance of exposure by implementing prepared management plans.
AHERA has broad reach, covering school districts and non-profit private schools, including charter schools and schools affiliated with religious institutions. Rules include requiring schools to:
- Inspect for asbestos
- Re-inspect status of asbestos every three years
- Develop and implement management plan
- Provide notification of plan to parents, teachers and employees
AHERA generally does not require asbestos removal unless damage or disturbance is likely. This can occur during a scheduled demolition or school renovation project.
School Compliance with AHERA
Compliance with AHERA rules varies from state to state, district to district. The Savannah-Chatham County Public School System offers an example of proper compliance. Here, the school issued a notice to all parents that inspections were completed and the system was found to meet AHERA standards.
However, a report by the Education Resources Information Center provides an example on the other end of the spectrum. It found not just one school, but the majority of schools inspected in New Jersey were not in compliance. The findings revealed school officials did not have a good understanding of the asbestos management plan, thus failing to meet AHERA standards.
The Concern of Asbestos Exposure to Children
Schools that are not in compliance with AHERA may be putting children, teachers and other employees at risk of asbestos exposure. Researchers here in the United States project that nine children will die of asbestos related diseases for every one death of a teacher. This increase is due to the fact that children are exposed to the material when they are young, and the fiber irritates the lung material for a longer period of time. As a result, it is more likely to lead to disease.
Schools are required to comply with AHERA. If you are concerned that your child or a loved one was exposed to asbestos and has developed an asbestos related illness, it is important to contact an experienced mesothelioma attorney to ensure all your legal rights and remedies are protected.