What You Need To Know About Asbestos In Schools

Many of the buildings affected are schools, putting students and teachers, as well as other staff members, at increased risk for asbestos exposure.

Now more than ever, the health and safety of our loved ones, especially our children, is at the forefront of our minds. Asbestos is a dangerous threat and can be found in older buildings all over the country.

Many of the buildings affected are schools, putting students and teachers, as well as other staff members, at increased risk for asbestos exposure. 

Know the Risk of Asbestos Exposure

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a campaign back in 1980 to attempt to ban asbestos, stating that “the Agency has determined that exposure to asbestos in school buildings poses a significant hazard to public health.” The EPA conducted a research study where they discovered that almost 35,000 schools nationwide posed a risk of asbestos exposure for millions of students and teachers. 

Asbestos dust and fibers can create serious health problems when inhaled or ingested.

These fibers enter through your nose and mouth when you breathe and can settle deep into your lungs, possibly causing significant health problems including mesothelioma, as well as asbestosis or lung cancer. 

Asbestosis is a serious and chronic respiratory illness. When the asbestos dust and fibers settle into the lungs, it aggravates the tissue and causes extensive scarring.

There is currently no treatment that is effective for this disease, and with time it can be fatal. Those who work closely with asbestos without proper personal protective equipment may be at the highest risk. 

Lung Cancer is the most common disease that can lead to death related to asbestos exposure. There are many other industries that come into contact with materials that cause lung cancer, such as mining and milling. Those who come into contact with asbestos have a much higher chance of developing lung cancer than the general population, though. 

Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that impacts the thin lining of the lungs, chest, abdomen, and sometimes even the heart. This type of cancer is rare, with about 200 cases diagnosed in the United States annually. 

There is a strong connection between those who have worked closely with asbestos and the diagnosis of mesothelioma. Family members or people who lived with workers while they were in contact with asbestos are also at a higher risk of developing mesothelioma.

Why is Asbestos Prominent In Schools?

Asbestos is incredibly fire-resistant, so back in the 1950s and 1960s, it was added to most construction materials.

Many schools were built during this time, so we see higher rates of asbestos in school buildings

When these materials are left untouched, they pose no danger, but as these schools begin to deteriorate under the wear and tear of many years of student use, asbestos dust and fibers become more exposed and thus a more dangerous health threat. 

Where Can Asbestos Be Found In Schools? 

Asbestos is a mineral, so it was easy to incorporate into many building materials. Vinyl flooring, ceiling tiles, popcorn or textured ceilings, chalkboards, and sheets of cement are common products that have added asbestos for insulation and fireproofing. It can also be found in insulation used for boilers and pipe wraps, as well as ductwork for heating and cooling systems. 

Has Anything Been Done About the Asbestos Problem? 

The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) was passed by Congress in 1986.

The goal of the act is to protect teachers and students from the harmful effects of asbestos exposure by implementing regulations to minimize the use of asbestos in future products. The Act mandates that manufacturers report any products that incorporate asbestos to the Environmental Protection Agency for review. 

AHERA also requires schools to have inspections conducted to identify hazardous materials containing asbestos in the schools and work on a plan to manage the asbestos. It also provides protections for workers who come into contact with asbestos, such as contractors and inspectors. 

While these laws do require asbestos to be closely monitored in schools, they do not mandate the removal of asbestos unless it is in poor condition and poses an active health hazard. 

What is Currently Going on With Asbestos In Schools?

There is currently not much funding for AHERA programs, making asbestos inspection and removal hard to stay on top of federally. The Environmental Protection Agency oversees and is responsible for inspections in 29 states around the country, but the rest of the states conduct their own inspections and management of the asbestos problem.

The EPA does oversee the efforts of those states, but it can be difficult to enforce the rules and regulations due to the lack of funding for the program. 

Who Is Really At Risk? 

The Committee on Carcinogenicity, a research group out of the U.K. government shows that children are more likely to have adverse effects due to asbestos exposure than the adults who are exposed. Children can even have a risk of developing mesothelioma five times higher than an adult who was exposed at the same time. The findings of this study played a huge role in the EPA’s involvement.

Talking to Your Child’s School About Asbestos

When it comes to safety in school, you are your student’s biggest advocate. Many parents and guardians may not know about the dangers of asbestos, or what your local school system is doing to be proactive about the problem. 

Sometimes years go by without inspections and asbestos management in schools, and you can help to make a difference by reaching out to your local school to ask what they are doing to combat the dangerous possible outcomes of asbestos inhalation by children, teachers, and other staff members.

You can also ask when the last inspection was done, and what the findings were. 

Is the School Ultimately Responsible for Managing Asbestos? 

The extent to which schools are responsible for identifying and managing asbestos in their buildings depends heavily on the state and school district in question. Some states are regulated federally, and some other states operate independently and come up with their own management methods. 

The Office of Inspector General Report on asbestos in schools actually showed that the schools in states not managed federally were more proactive and likely to manage the asbestos in their district.

AHERA states a requirement that schools must provide information about asbestos management plans to anyone who requests to see them. 

Reviewing an Asbestos Management Plan

If you do reach out to your local school district to obtain their asbestos management plan, you should know what to look for within the document. There will be contact information of the person put in charge of managing all asbestos-related items in the school. This person should be trained properly to handle this specific issue. 

The management plan should also include inspection guidelines, including contact information for the inspector, who should be accredited specifically as an asbestos inspector. There will also be a detailed plan outlining how the school plans to manage the existing materials that contain asbestos, and a safety plan to prevent student and teacher exposure during normal activities. 

In the event that there is an asbestos inspection planned or a change is made to the management plan, there must be a detailed explanation of how these changes will be communicated to the general public by the school. 

The management plan needs to include an accurate and up-to-date record of all asbestos-related activities including inspections, meetings, exposures, and management actions

After looking over the plan fully, the contact person listed will be able to answer any additional questions you may have about the plan and its details. 

Which States are Federally Regulated?

You are probably wondering if your state is federally regulated when it comes to asbestos management in schools. The Environmental Protection Agency oversees most states, but there are twelve “waiver states” that are responsible for implementing their own practices and guidelines for asbestos management. 

These “waiver states” are Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Kentucky, Louisiana, Illinois, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and Utah. 

There are nine “non-waiver states” that do have oversight by the EPA but conduct their own inspections. The nine non-waiver states include Vermont, New York, New Jersey, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi.

All the other states not listed above fit within federal jurisdiction. 

Financial Obligations of the School System

Although the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act was passed in 1986, there has been a lack of federal funding, leaving much of the financial burden on the school systems which are already lacking in funding themselves. 

Inspection can be costly enough, but if the inspection turns up any hazardous asbestos that needs to be removed or managed, the cost can skyrocket quickly. Of course, these costly actions need to be taken to protect and ensure the safety of students, teachers, and staff, but it can be difficult for schools to take on these expensive services, which can lead to dangerous delays in asbestos removal.

Some school districts have fundraising efforts toward these large projects, and many school systems could use the help.

Educating more members of your community about the importance of asbestos detection and removal, as well as the horrible possible health outcomes can help to encourage people to begin a fundraiser for their local school system.

Guidelines for When Asbestos is Found in Schools

The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act does have a plan and preferred method for managing asbestos when it is detected in schools. If a state is overseen federally, it must follow the AHERA guidelines but if it is one of the twelve “waiver states”, the management method is up to the state. 

The federal guidelines include methods such as maintenance, repair, encapsulation, enclosure, and removal.

Maintenance entails repairing and damage insulation that may be exposing the asbestos dust and fibers. This is the easiest fix for a rather small asbestos problem, but at times there is more that needs to be done if more asbestos is found. 

Encapsulation includes preventing the future spread of fibers and dust by coating the material with a sprayed sealant. This method must be conducted by a licensed and accredited asbestos professional. 

Enclosure is a bit different than encapsulation and is done by creating an airtight barrier to keep asbestos at bay. It could be constructed of various materials such as wood, metal, or sheetrock to name a few. 

Finally, if no other measures have proved to be an adequate solution, the removal of the asbestos may be necessary. This is usually the most expensive management method because materials containing asbestos must be removed and disposed of properly, while new materials that do not contain asbestos must be installed in place of the old materials. 

This is also the most dangerous management method because it increases the likelihood of more asbestos being released during the removal process. Removal must also be done by an accredited asbestos professional. 

Asbestos in Colleges and Universities

Asbestos is not only found in elementary schools, junior high, and high schools. As mentioned previously, asbestos was included in the manufacturing of building materials in the 1950s and 1960s, so anything built in that time period likely contains amounts of asbestos.

 AHERA focuses on asbestos management in elementary and secondary schools, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates these procedures at colleges and universities. 

According to OSHA, all colleges must survey and inspect their building for asbestos and record any samples taken during these inspections or any maintenance activities. They must also provide asbestos training to custodial employees, which can ultimately help in the detection and proper management of asbestos.

Colleges and universities can face serious fines if they do not comply with all OSHA asbestos regulations. 

Get Involved

The more information you know about asbestos and its impact on the health and safety of students, teachers, and other staff members in schools, the more you can do to make an impact and ensure that your local schools are adhering to the federal guidelines, or the guidelines mandated by your state.

Stay up to date on your local asbestos management programs, and what you can do in your area to help. 

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