The Issue of Asbestos Exposure in U.S. Schools

The Issue of Asbestos Exposure in U.S. Schools

Nearly forty years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began engaging in a series of daunting endeavors aimed at eliminating the hazard of asbestos. The agency's first nationwide survey, conducted in 1984, revealed that 15 million students and 1.4 million teachers, administrators, and other school employees were at risk of asbestos exposure.

Shortly after EPA concluded that "asbestos in school buildings poses a significant hazard to public health", the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act (ASHAA) was enforced with the purpose of offering public and private school grants and interest-free loans for emergency asbestos abatement projects. Two other laws followed - the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) in 1986 and the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Reauthorization Act (ASHARA) in 1990. While the former would compel schools to develop a plan outlining the precise location of asbestos products in the building and describing how they should be handled, the latter would assist schools in ensuring they had the necessary resources to manage the hazard of asbestos.

Today, 33 years since ASHAA was enacted, the issue of asbestos in U.S. schools is still topical and will very likely remain so for several more decades. Despite EPA's ongoing efforts to provide effective regulations concerning exposure in school buildings, a large portion of the 132,000 primary and secondary schools in the country - which serve over 55 million students and in which approximately 7 million teachers and employees spend a significant amount of their time on a regular basis - contain asbestos products. According to EPA, "the extent of asbestos hazards remaining in schools across the nation is largely unknown" at the moment, since the 1984 risk assessment survey was also the last the agency led.

Nevertheless, the number of U.S. schools which were shut down within the past decade due to failure to comply with asbestos regulations, as well as the number of teachers who develop mesothelioma, speaks volumes about the gravity of the problem. In 2011, a high school and a middle school in St. Louis Park, Minnesota were temporarily closed after asbestos dust from floor tiles was found in the building, whereas in 2014, the Ocean View School District in Orange County, California shut down three campuses after asbestos was discovered in multiple classrooms.

Teachers Are Twice More Likely to Develop Mesothelioma than the General Population

In 1999, mesothelioma claimed the lives of 38 elementary and secondary school teachers. While the number might not seem very alarming, teachers were actually the second occupational group with the most mesothelioma deaths after construction workers, which registered 77 deaths. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, teachers' death rate from mesothelioma is higher than that of people with a considerable risk of on-the-job asbestos exposure, such as chemical industry workers. Elementary school teachers make up approximately 2% of the individuals who die of mesothelioma.

However, students who were exposed to asbestos have an even greater risk of being affected by this disease than teachers. A 2013 study conducted by the U.K. government's Committee on Carcinogenicity revealed that a five-year-old child is five times more prone to developing mesothelioma at some point during their lifetime than a thirty-year-old adult. Moreover, the same risk assessment study led by EPA in 1984 estimated that asbestos exposure will result in approximately 1,000 premature deaths within the next 30 years, 90% of which involving schoolchildren.

Which Schools Imply the Highest Risk of Asbestos Exposure?

Schools which were built before 1981 are very likely to have asbestos somewhere in their structure. In fact, one out of two U.S. school buildings was constructed between 1950 and 1969, during the heyday of asbestos consumption. Therefore, the presence of this carcinogenic mineral in old schools is nearly certain. The most common places asbestos lurks in include:

  • heating and air-conditioning systems
  • steam pipes
  • wallboard
  • asphalt, vinyl or rubber floor tiles
  • boiler insulation
  • acoustic plaster
  • drywall
  • chalkboards
  • ceiling panels
  • spray-on ceiling treatment
  • patching and joint compounds
  • textured paint

It is noteworthy that as long as asbestos products are in good condition, the risk of exposure is minimal. Only damaged asbestos-containing building materials entail a health hazard, as toxic fibers can escape more easily from such products. Similarly, friable asbestos products imply a significantly greater danger than non-friable ones, since fibers are not tightly bound and can become airborne at the slightest disturbance.

How Do U.S. School Boards Manage Asbestos?

The boards of both public and private schools are required to regularly inspect the building for asbestos-containing products which might pose a threat to the heath of students and employees, as well as to prepare asbestos management plans in accordance with AHERA's provisions. The plan must specify the exact location of asbestos products in the building and also include appropriate safety measures, which need to be carried out as soon as possible. Unless there is a written certificate that the building does not contain asbestos materials, each school must follow these rules.

Asbestos management plans are only developed by accredited professionals and are periodically updated. Failure to comply with EPA's asbestos regulations can result in civil penalties of as much as $5,000 per each day during which the school board continues to violate the law. It is also important to know that as a parent, teacher or school employee, you can request access to the asbestos management plan any time and the school must make it available within a reasonable amount of time.

When asbestos products which might endanger public health are found in a building, AHERA does not require the school to remove the materials in question, as the process would increase the extent of exposure, according to EPA. Instead, the school board has to plan in-place management, which should reduce the hazard substantially. The removal of asbestos is only performed when the product is severely damaged or when there is a risk of it being disturbed during operations such as renovation or demolition.

However, in-place management provides only a temporary solution, as over time, asbestos products will further deteriorate. With aging, asbestos-containing materials become brittle, which promotes the release of toxic fibers in the air. The worrisome issue of asbestos exposure in U.S. schools must continue to be rigorously addressed by EPA, as well as by each school board, until this health hazard is completely abolished.

Why Should I Test Products in My Home for Asbestos?

It is often impossible to tell whether asbestos is embedded in a material, as the fibers are too small to be observed with the naked eye. Exposure to asbestos is responsible for serious respiratory conditions, so thorough testing is required to ensure your home is asbestos-free.