Students and school employees face significant health risks from lingering asbestos in schools and colleges across the U.S. Because the current policy is to manage asbestos materials in-place, the potential for harmful exposures will likely persist for years to come.
One area of concern for parents and teachers is the prevalence of asbestos in U.S. school buildings. If a school was built before the 1980s, it’s likely that it contains some form of asbestos. About half of all schools in the U.S. were built from 1950 to 1969, when asbestos materials were highly prevalent in construction.
When maintenance work disturbs these materials, or they start to deteriorate over time, asbestos dust can enter the air and be inhaled. Exposure to the dust puts teachers and students at increased risk for mesothelioma, lung cancer and other serious lung conditions.
Find out who concealed asbestos risks from their employees.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), asbestos-containing materials reside in many of the approximately 132,000 primary and secondary schools in the nation. These schools serve more than 55 million children, and are the worksites for more than 7 million teachers, administrators and support staff.
As long as asbestos building materials remain in good condition, the EPA insists they pose minimal health risks and recommends schools leave them in place. But if negligent maintenance work or improper abatement procedures occur, otherwise harmless asbestos products can cause serious exposures.
In October 2014, parents and teachers in Huntington Beach, California were outraged to discover contractors had removed asbestos materials unsafely from multiple district schools earlier that year. The Ocean View School District failed to warn parents and teachers about the project and did not use proper safeguards to prevent exposure — serious violations of EPA regulations that protect students and teachers from asbestos.
Air tests at Lake View Elementary confirmed two classrooms had airborne asbestos levels exceeding federal safety standards. After considerable pressure from parents and teachers, the district closed Lake View and two other elementary schools indefinitely while the asbestos risks were being resolved.
The families of students who attended these schools filed a claim against the district, alleging its elected leaders and various other officials and contractors failed to protect children from the hazardous conditions at these schools.
While the occupations at highest risk for asbestos exposure have historically been miners, construction workers and veterans of the U.S. armed forces, teachers are more likely to be exposed than many other occupations that don’t directly involve asbestos.
The elementary and secondary schools industry ranked second for mesothelioma deaths in 1999, according to National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) data on reported causes of death. Construction topped the list with 77 deaths, and teachers followed with 38 deaths.
More teachers died of mesothelioma that year than workers in other industries known for frequent asbestos exposure risks, including industrial chemicals, railroads and electric light and power.
More recent data from the U.K. reveals a sharp increase in mesothelioma deaths among school teachers from 1980 to 2012. While an average of three teachers died per year in the 1980s, the death rate rose to 19 per year by 2012.
Because doctors can link the vast majority of mesotheliomas to past exposures to asbestos, these statistics offer some insight into the prevalence of asbestos in schools and the dangers it poses to public health.
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In 2013, research from the U.K. government’s Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) showed that children are more vulnerable to asbestos exposure than adults. The COC concluded a five-year-old child’s lifetime risk oasbasbf developing mesothelioma is approximately five times greater than that of a 30-year-old adult.
An EPA risk assessment study from the early 1980s estimated that 1,000 premature deaths related to asbestos exposure would occur over the next 30 years, with people exposed as schoolchildren accounting for 90 percent of those deaths. These findings provided impetus for the development of mandated asbestos control programs in schools.
Knowing how to spot asbestos-containing materials can help teachers maintain a safe environment for students and school employees. But unless a product is clearly labeled, there’s no way to tell if it contains asbestos simply by looking at it. By law, schools must consult a qualified expert to collect samples and have them tested in the lab to confirm the presence of asbestos.
If you find a deteriorated area in the school, you should request a copy of the school’s asbestos management plan or talk to a custodian to find out if it poses an asbestos hazard. According to an EPA regulation called the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), a designated person at the school must develop and update a detailed plan describing the location and type of any asbestos materials in the school. A copy of the plan must stay on-site.
The plan will list the results of all asbestos inspections and preventive or response actions the school has taken or plans to take to limit exposures. Anyone can request a copy of the asbestos management plan from the school’s administrative office. If the asbestos management plan confirms there are asbestos materials in the deteriorated area, notify your school administration or AHERA designated person immediately.
Starting in the early 1980s, the EPA began investigating the prevalence of asbestos in schools and assessing the risk it posed to students and teachers. As the consequences of exposure became increasingly clear, the EPA enacted a series of rules and regulations to prevent harmful exposures and minimize health risks when abatement was necessary.
EPA Estimated Asbestos Risks in Schools
An EPA risk study revealed more than 8,500 schools contain friable asbestos, a form that can easily crumble and shed airborne fibers. The EPA determined more than 3 million students and 250,000 teachers and school workers were at risk for harmful exposures.
The EPA issued the Asbestos-in-Schools rule, requiring schools to inspect for asbestos materials, document there locations and make this information readily available to teachers, parents and school workers. Schools also had to provide custodial workers an EPA guide on reducing asbestos exposure.
Asbestos-in-Schools Rule Enacted
The Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act (ASHAA)
ASHAA provided grants and interest-free loans to public and private schools that lacked the necessary funding for emergency asbestos removal actions. Congress appropriated $382 million for ASHAA from 1984 to 1993, but supplied no additional funds after 1993.
Congress passed AHERA, requiring schools to develop an official plan outlining the location of asbestos materials and how they will be managed. AHERA gave the EPA authority to issue fines and civil suits against school systems and administrators that fail to follow federal asbestos laws during any activities related to asbestos.
The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA)
The Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Reauthorization Act (ASHARA)
ASHARA helped schools ensure they have the necessary expertise, technical assistance and financial resources to identify asbestos and remove it when necessary. The act required anyone involved with asbestos activities in commercial buildings, schools and other public buildings to be trained and accredited for asbestos work.
If a school fails to conduct an inspection or develop an asbestos management plan, the EPA can fine the school as much as $5,000. In addition, AHERA mandates training for maintenance and janitorial staff so they are qualified to recognize asbestos hazards.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, an office of the U.S. Department of Education, 4,495 degree-granting institutions in the U.S. operate more than 10,000 establishments (campuses, offices, research facilities or other locations). This amount includes all public and private, for profit and nonprofit colleges, universities and junior colleges in the country. These post-secondary schools serve approximately 20.4 million full- and part-time students and employ more than 3.9 million faculty and staff.
While AHERA regulations address asbestos issues in elementary and secondary schools, the EPA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and various state and municipal laws regulate asbestos removal procedures for the nation’s colleges and universities.
Failure to follow OSHA and EPA guidelines during asbestos work or maintenance that may disturb asbestos materials can result in significant fines levied on any non-complying institution.
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