Asbestos Exposure & Bans

Government Report: EPA Failed to Properly Monitor Asbestos in Schools

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Written By: Matt Mauney, Last modified: October 16, 2020

A recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency’s internal watchdog shows the agency isn’t doing enough to minimize asbestos risks in U.S. schools.

From 2011 through 2015, the EPA conducted only 13 percent of the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) inspections it was responsible for nationwide, according to a report released Monday by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General.

States with jurisdiction over their own inspections performed 87 percent, more than six times that of federal implementation jurisdictions.

“Our objective was to determine whether the EPA was performing sufficient compliance inspections of schools to reduce asbestos exposure,” the Office of Inspector General report reads. “Even though the EPA was responsible for conducting AHERA compliance inspections for the majority of states, it conducted fewer inspections overall than the states responsible for their own inspections.”

Asbestos exposure is a common concern in U.S. schools. AHERA, which became law in 1986, requires local educational agencies to inspect their school buildings for asbestos-containing materials, prepare management plans and perform appropriate response actions to ensure the safety of the more than 50 million students and 7 million teachers and staff.

Students and faculty at schools built before 1980 are especially at risk, as those structures contain a wide range of asbestos building materials that may become friable during maintenance work, renovations and demolitions.

Inhaling or ingesting microscopic asbestos fibers can lead to serious health conditions much later in life such as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Schools in 29 States Impacted by EPA’s Lack of Monitoring

Of the 6,359 total inspections conducted between 2011 and 2015, only 848 were done by the EPA.

The rest were conducted by the 12 states with AHERA waivers to implement and oversee their own asbestos in schools regulations or the nine non-waiver states that conduct their own inspections with EPA oversight and enforcement.

Wavier states include:

  • Connecticut

  • Colorado

  • Illinois

  • Kentucky

  • Louisiana

  • Massachusetts

  • Maine

  • New Hampshire

  • Oklahoma

  • Rhode Island

  • Texas

  • Utah

Non-waiver states include:

  • Georgia

  • Hawaii

  • Mississippi

  • New Jersey

  • New York

  • North Carolina

  • Tennessee

  • Vermont

  • West Virginia

The remaining 29 states fall under federal implementation jurisdiction. Included are California, Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan — some of the nation’s highest-ranking states for mesothelioma and asbestosis deaths.

On average, only 28 inspections were conducted in each of the 29 states. According to the inspector general’s report, half (five) of the EPA’s regional districts only check for asbestos in a school if they receive a specific complaint.

The South-Central regional office did no inspections between 2012 and 2016. Federal jurisdiction states affected include Arkansas and New Mexico. States in Region 7 — Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas — conducted only six inspections during that time.

“Our survey results indicated that regional AHERA programs are not well-funded and inspection numbers in waiver and non-waiver states significantly outnumber those in federal implementation jurisdictions,” the report said. “This results in states having varying degrees of oversight to none at all. Without knowing whether [local educational agencies] are complying with AHERA and identifying and properly managing asbestos in schools, there is an increased risk that asbestos in schools may go unnoticed, potentially resulting in asbestos exposure.”

Children at Higher Risk for Asbestos Exposure

Traditionally, asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma affect adults 65 years or older with a past history of occupational asbestos exposure.

These diseases carry a latency period of 10 to 50 years after initial exposure. Students exposed to asbestos early in life have more time to develop these diseases and experience health effects from exposure.

Children are also more susceptible to asbestos exposure.

“Asbestos exposure risk is higher in children because they are more active, breathe at higher rates and through the mouth, and spend more time closer to the floor where asbestos fibers can accumulate,” the inspector general report reads.

Asbestos in older schools can be found in vinyl flooring, adhesives, textured paint, steam pipes and patching compounds used on walls and ceilings.

The Office of Inspector General report proposes improvements to minimize asbestos exposure risks in schools, citing lack of resources and competing priorities as the main issues.

The watchdog office, which is an independently funded operation within the EPA, recommends the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance require EPA regions to incorporate asbestos strategies in their Toxic Substances Control Act compliance monitoring efforts. It also recommends local educational agencies comply with the Asbestos-Containing Materials in Schools Rule, develop and maintain an asbestos management plan, and monitor compliance.

“In response to our draft report, the EPA stated that disinvestment from the asbestos program has been due, in large part, to increasing resource limitations and competing priorities,” the report said. “Based on the agency’s response, we modified the initial recommendations. The agency agreed and provided acceptable corrective actions and completion dates that meet the intent of the revised recommendations.”

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