When Heather Karras learned the Alabama elementary school her children attend contains asbestos, she pulled them out, and asked for answers.
Delayed responses from Bay Minette Elementary School officials raised fears the deteriorating 1920s-era school possibly was placing children, teachers and anyone else who visits the building at risk of asbestos exposure.
Asbestos causes mesothelioma, an often terminal cancer that affects nearly 3,000 people annually in the U.S.
“What did I do?” Karras told Asbestos.com. “I thought we moved here to have a better life at this old hometown school. I made the worst decision as a parent.”
School officials this week said air testing results showed no imminent danger of asbestos exposure. However, they are sealing undisturbed asbestos found in the library. Despite those actions, a federal report also shows the school failed to follow EPA guidelines.
The incident at Bay Minette Elementary represents a much broader problem plaguing many old and deteriorating public buildings, including schools, hospitals and police stations, across the U.S., Australia, the U.K., Canada and other countries where asbestos was commonly used in the construction industry.
Although air testing showed no threat of exposure at the school, Baldwin County Public Schools Superintendent Robbie Owen said officials have closed the school’s library until an area containing asbestos is permanently sealed.
District spokesperson Terry Wilhite told Asbestos.com in a phone call that “the board of education has adhered to all state and federal laws related to environmental testing.”
However, Asbestos.com obtained a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report showing school officials failed to:
Owen also said the school board will inform the public asbestos exists in certain district schools, conduct additional air testing in the library after they seal off the asbestos, and they will “provide refresher training to school system maintenance and operation employees on the subject of asbestos and the do’s [and] don’ts when working in a facility where it exists.”
But Bay Minette Elementary isn’t the only U.S. school in the spotlight when it comes to asbestos exposure:
Up until the 1970s, asbestos was widely used as fireproofing in building projects, including schools. If the materials containing asbestos become damaged, asbestos fibers can become airborne.
When inhaled, those fibers can become lodged in the lining that covers the lungs and eventually cause cancerous cell mutation. The latency period can be up to 40 years, but the disease is almost always fatal. Those diagnosed live an average of 12-21 months after diagnosis.
In recent years, reports have shed light on how some hospitals are placing their healers at risk of asbestos exposure.
British anesthesiologist Andrew Lawson was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2007. At first, he couldn’t understand how he contracted it. He later learned the asbestos exposure happened at the hospital where he was a medical student.
“It seems that there may have been a lot of asbestos in the tunnels at Guy’s Hospital [in London] where I spent six years training,” he told the Telegraph in 2014. “Everybody, students, nurses, doctors and porters, used the tunnels. One wonders how many of my contemporaries will get the same disease?”
He remembered walking those tunnels 2-3 times a day for six years while he training at Guy’s Hospital. Lawson said three other doctors in school with him also developed mesothelioma. He was the last of the four to die from the cancer. Lawson died in February. He was 55.
According to the Australia Broadcasting Corporation, a similar scenario is occurring Down Under.
The ABC reports a growing number of new mesothelioma cases among hospital workers. Asbestos was widely used in hospitals across Australia to insulate the hot water and steam pipes in their corridors, walkways and underground tunnels.
In May 2014, a contractor performing mechanical upgrades to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system at the Stamford Police Department in Connecticut discovered asbestos in the station’s plaster ceiling.
Air samples taken by city-contracted inspectors and another hired independently by the police union came back negative for asbestos contamination. But that didn’t stop the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from fining the city of Stamford $2,720 in November 2014.
OSHA slapped the city with five violations of federal safety procedures for handling asbestos. The violations included not informing janitors and contractors in the building about potential health risks of asbestos and not removing asbestos-containing materials in a way to avoid contamination.
Since that time, more than 280 officers and civilians working at the Stamford Police Department filed workers’ compensation claims alleging decades of possible asbestos exposure at police headquarters. These workers expect financial compensation if they develop any asbestos-related disease such as mesothelioma from their occupational exposure.
“The officers are making the city aware they were exposed to asbestos and they want to protect themselves in the future if they are diagnosed with illnesses that are known to be caused by exposure to asbestos,” said Awilda Quesada, of the state’s workers’ compensation commission.
In the U.S. about 3,000 mesothelioma cases are diagnosed each year. Newly diagnosed cases in the U.K. are slightly below that number at 2,500.
Mesothelioma still remains a rare disease on the spectrum of killer maladies.
But as news reports continue to surface about asbestos in buildings inhabited by children, teachers, law enforcement officers, patients and their doctors, it is clear that asbestos in the U.S. and other countries will continue being a plague unless an official worldwide ban is in effect.
Beth Swantek has been writing professionally for 30 years. She is a former news reporter and anchor for a CBS affiliate in Michigan and often reported breaking medical and political news. Currently, she teaches media writing and video production at Lawrence Technological University in the Detroit area, as well as working as a freelance writer and producer.