Children, Teachers Risk Asbestos Exposure in Chicago Schools

Children in a classroom with arms raised

Hundreds of students and teachers in nearly 200 Chicago public schools risk exposure to deadly asbestos, a new report shows.

The EWG Action Fund study shows Chicago Public School (CPS) officials in 2013 hired inspectors who advised them of the asbestos problems in the schools. Of the 184 elementary, middle and high schools identified as possible exposure risks, only 11 schools had complied with the recommendations, according to a 2015 CPS asbestos surveillance update.

That surveillance report shows some schools still had damaged asbestos-containing pipe insulation that “appears to be separating at some places,” and plaster that was “falling behind door stage left.”

In a statement to WGN-TV, CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said the district has “spent roughly $54 million on environmental remediation work (including asbestos) throughout the district” in the past five years.

CPS officials told WGN-TV an updated report on the state of asbestos at the district’s schools will be issued at the end of June.

Asbestos Found in Classrooms, Hallways and Teachers’ Lounges

The 2013 inspection identified 1,174 locations containing asbestos products throughout Chicago’s public schools.

The common, at-risk areas accessible to students, teachers and staff included:

  • Classrooms
  • Auditoriums
  • Teachers’ lounges
  • School corridors
  • Restrooms
  • Storage rooms
  • Boiler rooms

More than half of those locations contain friable (easily crumbled) asbestos that is damaged or has the potential to become damaged, which increases the risk for harmful exposures.

“Friable asbestos fibers can quickly become airborne from a touch of the hands or feet, not to mention the wear and tear resulting from students running, jumping, throwing balls or dropping heavy objects,” the EWG Action Fund report shows.

Schools cited in the report include Helen M. Hefferan Elementary School, Northwest Middle School and Lincoln Park High School, among others.

Inspectors at these schools identified asbestos-containing materials they considered “damaged or significantly damaged” in classroom floor tiles and insulation.

Asbestos Abatement Policy Not Followed in Chicago Public Schools

Chicago Public Schools not only failed to follow the recommendations of its contracted inspectors, but it also violated the asbestos policy described in the district’s Facility Performance Standards.

According to the 2012 district document, one of the minimum standards for managing asbestos hazards is to “repair, fully encapsulate, or abate all friable asbestos-containing materials, including removal of asbestos-containing floor tiles, in areas occupied by students and staff.”

A Prevailing National Problem

The asbestos crisis uncovered at Chicago schools is not an isolated issue.

As school buildings across the nation age and deteriorate, many other school districts will face similar problems.

For example, three Huntington Beach, California, elementary schools closed in 2014 after officials discovered contractors had removed asbestos unsafely. Students at those schools were bussed to out-of-area schools while officials cleaned the facilities. While most returned to their own schools this year, some students are still waiting for abatement to end.

Since early 1980, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has investigated the hazards asbestos in school buildings pose to public health. The EPA conducted a nationwide survey in 1984 to gauge the extent of the danger.

Results from that survey, which included responses from nearly 35,000 public and private school officials, revealed 15 million students and 1.4 million faculty and staff faced possible exposure to carcinogenic asbestos fibers.

More than 30 years later, the EPA has yet to perform a similar survey, meaning there is no accurate, up-to-date assessment of asbestos risks in our nation’s schools.

Cost of Asbestos Removal Is Prohibitive for School Districts

Meanwhile, school districts in all 50 states are struggling to find ways to cover the monumental costs associated with asbestos remediation.

In 1986, the EPA introduced the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), which requires school districts to inspect for asbestos every three years and continually monitor and manage its presence in buildings, abating when necessary.

The 1984 Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act offered financial assistance to U.S. schools, authorizing $600 million in grants and loans for asbestos removal. And from 1984 to 1993, congress appropriated $382 million to aid schools in asbestos cleanup.

But that funding dried up 23 years ago, forcing school officials in every state today to raise necessary funds for asbestos abatement on their own.

“The ongoing problem of asbestos in schools in Chicago and nationwide is not likely to be resolved soon,” the EWG Action Fund report shows. “Until there is increased openness around the presence of asbestos in schools and additional accountability and support for school districts to take the necessary steps for abatement, America’s students, teachers and school staff will remain at risk.”

  1. Chicago Public Schools. (2015). Chicago Public Schools 6 Month Asbestos Surveillance 2015. John W. Garvy Elementary School. Retrieved from http://docplayer.net/2294479-Chicago-public-schools-6-month-asbestos-surveillance-2015-spring.html
  2. Chicago Public Schools. (2012, August 31). Facility Performance Standards. Retrieved from http://cps.edu/About_CPS/Policies_and_guidelines/Documents/FacilityPerformanceStandards.pdf
  3. EWG Action Fund (2016). Inspectors Find Widespread Asbestos Risks in Chicago Schools. Retrieved from http://www.asbestosnation.org/facts/inspectors-find-widespread-asbestos-risks-in-chicago-schools/
  4. Loo, N. and Runge, E. (2016, March 17). Nearly 200 CPS schools show asbestos risk: Report. Retrieved from http://wgntv.com/2016/03/16/nearly-200-cps-schools-show-asbestos-risk-report/
  5. Walker, B. (n.d.). Asbestos Remains Widespread Hazard in U.S. Schools. Retrieved from http://www.asbestosnation.org/facts/asbestos-in-schools/

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.

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