COVID-19 Closures Accelerate Asbestos Abatement in Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic closed educational institutions everywhere, but it also opened a door to the acceleration of vitally important asbestos abatement in schools where children would have been in attendance.
Business has been booming.
“It does look like a lot of schools took advantage of it [the closing of facilities],” Brent Kynoch, managing director of the Environmental Information Association, told The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com. “They may have had work contracted for later in the summer, but just said, ‘Let’s get started with it now, and get it done.’ They understood the importance. And that’s a positive.”
The Environmental Information Association, located near Washington, D.C., was originally founded as the National Asbestos Council in 1983. Its members are involved in asbestos management and abatement in buildings across the country, and include contractors, scientists, training providers, equipment suppliers and regulators.
Asbestos Abatement Vital in Schools
Kynoch has met several times with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials working on the review of asbestos under the Toxic Substances Control Act. He has been a critic of its initial asbestos draft risk evaluation.
“For schools, and all facilities, these projects are critically important, because every time an asbestos abatement is accomplished, it means we’ve taken asbestos out of reach of someone who may come into contact with it unknowingly,” he said. “When schools are engaging in these projects, beyond what’s actually required by law, it’s a very good thing.”
One of his members has started early on all eight of its school abatement projects scheduled for this summer. Another member informed him that several schools on its project list in New York City started soon after schools closed in March.
The asbestos exposure problem is magnified in schools and any buildings constructed before the early 1980s, before the use of asbestos products became heavily regulated and its use dramatically reduced.
Asbestos products become dangerous with age, when the microscopic, toxic fibers become airborne. When ingested or inhaled, the fibers eventually can lead to serious health issues, including lung cancer and mesothelioma.
In older school construction, asbestos often can be found in floor and ceiling tiles and in insulation applied to walls, pipes, boilers and ceilings.
Philadelphia Schools with Asbestos Busier Than Most
In Philadelphia, which was hit by a rash of public school closings caused by asbestos even before the pandemic, abatement projects have been nonstop in recent months.
William Hite, superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, told media recently that an estimated 70 facilities this summer are undergoing capital and environmental improvements, some of which include asbestos abatement.
Frank Jimenez, project manager for Asbestos Pro Services near Boston, said his crews started three different school projects early this spring because of the closings.
“School work is much stricter, with monitors on site, and the jobs are more time-consuming, costing more. But it’s good that we got in early,” Jimenez told The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com. “This kind of project is important for a lot of reasons.”
Asbestos Abatement Companies Busy During COVID-19
Unlike many businesses that were forced to close under governmental restrictions sparked by the coronavirus pandemic, asbestos abatement companies were deemed essential and remain open and busy.
Some said they were caught off guard, hindered initially by the frenzied buying and resulting shortage of personal protection equipment they needed. Anticipating the shortage was critical.
“There was a lot of discussion among members in late February about the possibility of shortages, but I have not heard many saying that actually came true,” Kynoch said. “I think our members already had good supplies, and then immediately went out and got more, like a lot of people did with toilet paper and such. So it really hasn’t been a problem for most in the business.”
The supply chain was more impacted by the need for N95 masks, which are used in the health care industry. Asbestos abatement requires more complex respiratory gear and full-body Tyvek suits.
Many asbestos abatement companies also work with lead paint and mold remediation. The health risks associated with the COVID-19 virus, and the efforts of businesses to return to safer environments as quickly as possible, have created additional job opportunities.
“It’s been a new source of business for many of our members,” Kynoch said. “They tell me they’ve been very, very busy with that kind of work. Anything that might have slowed in the residential sector — from people who didn’t want anyone in their home — has been more than made up for by the coronavirus cleaning opportunities.”