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August 13, 2018

Summer School: The prevalence of asbestos in schools

by: T. David Hoyle

Summer break is soon to be winding down, but has hopefully given both teachers and students time to recharge and be able come back to school refreshed. However, teachers and students aren’t the only ones who need a refresh. As I think about sending my sons back to school very soon, I was alarmed by an investigative news report that recently discovered shockingly dangerous levels of asbestos fibers, a deadly carcinogen, contaminate Philadelphia’s schools. This is not only an issue in Philadelphia — unfortunately, teachers, students and school staff across the nation work and study in buildings containing asbestos, leaving them at a higher risk of asbestos exposure and related diseases, including mesothelioma.

The average age of America’s public schools is 44 years, meaning they were built during peak years for asbestos use in building construction. Thus, many of the country’s school buildings contain some type of asbestos product, including:

  • Pipe and boiler insulation
  • Insulation in the walls or ceiling
  • Spray-on fireproof coating
  • Floor tiles and ceiling panels
  • Old heating and air-conditioning equipment
  • Exposed soundproofing material
  • Damaged wallboard and/or drywall 

EPA Rolls Back Asbestos Reform

Despite asbestos’ known health risks, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has dragged its feet in the way of an outright ban in the U.S. Most recently in June 2018, the EPA announced that it would impose restrictions on future asbestos use, including requiring manufacturers and importers to seek EPA approval before manufacturing, importing or processing asbestos. But, disappointingly, the agency declined the opportunity to impose an outright ban, or to address the issue of current asbestos contamination in schools and other facilities throughout the nation. The EPA painted its latest position on asbestos as a good thing —“the first such action on asbestos ever proposed.” In reality, it dials back decades-old asbestos reform and opens a door for renewed asbestos manufacturing in a time when the risks associated with asbestos are no longer up for debate.

The EPA first identified asbestos as a health threat to school children in 1978, which is the last known systematic survey by the EPA. In 1980, the EPA estimated that more than 34,800 schools had friable, or easily crumbled, asbestos, to which more than three million students and 250,000 teachers and faculty could potentially be exposed. The EPA further concluded at the time that, over a 30-year span, approximately 1,000 premature deaths would result from asbestos exposure, and that 90 percent of those deaths were expected to occur among people exposed to asbestos as school children. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that U.S. school teachers have an elevated rate of mesothelioma mortality. In the United Kingdom, studies have reached a similar conclusion, identifying “elementary school teacher” as the eighth most frequently listed occupation on mesothelioma death certificates.

To combat asbestos exposure in educational facilities, Congress passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act  (AHERA) in 1986. The passing of AHERA, which requires all public and private elementary and secondary schools to comply with various asbestos-related actions, marked the first time in which a federal agency (the EPA) was given the authority to regulate children’s health and safety issues in schools. If a school fails to conduct an inspection or develop a management plan, the EPA can fine the school as much as $5,000. In addition, AHERA requires training for all maintenance and janitorial staff so that they are able to recognize hazardous, asbestos-containing materials in order to maintain a safe environment for students and teachers. Similarly, public and private colleges and universities must adhere to asbestos-safety guidelines mandated by OSHA, the EPA, and various state and municipal laws.

So what can parents, teachers and students do about asbestos?

As children and adults throughout the country prepare to return to the classroom in August, most are preparing by restocking on essentials like pens, pencils, paper scissors, and crayons. However, you can take steps to make sure that exposure to carcinogens are limited to the best of your ability, including researching school supplies known to contain asbestos and other toxins.

You can also look into when your schools were built or renovated as public record. If you find that your schools were built before asbestos restrictions were in place, you may want to consider bringing attention to state lawmakers and school boards. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney allocated millions of dollars to remove carcinogens including lead, mold and asbestos in 57 local school buildings.

Closer to home, there was an issue a few years ago at my alma mater, Wofford College, when more than 200 incoming freshmen were forced to spend their first day of college at a nearby Marriott Hotel due to the discovery of hazardous asbestos-containing material in the ceiling of their dormitory. Only a few weeks earlier, college officials at Wofford discovered that the ceilings in Marsh Hall, built in 1969, had been compromised after water and moisture damaged the asbestos-containing ceiling coating, which, in turn, led to concern about potential asbestos exposure to incoming students. Fortunately, the repairs were completed quickly and thoroughly, and students were able to move into the freshman residence hall shortly afterward. 

Although improvements have been made concerning asbestos removal and abatement throughout the country, it is important to remain vigilant about the safety of our schools and universities to reduce the risk of asbestos exposure and future disease to students, administration and faculty.

The outcome in Philadelphia is a good example of how state officials can take a stand to prioritize the health and safety of our children and those who teach and take care of them on a daily basis. We all would breathe a little easier if lawmakers at all levels and federal regulators studied the risk of asbestos exposure in schools, where our next generation spends a majority of its time, and acted to designate the appropriate funding to abate and renovate dangerous school buildings.

Learn more about how you can help raise awareness about mesothelioma and asbestos by visiting the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization’s website.