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Asbestos in Older School Buildings

Schools

It has been more than 30 years since the United States government issued stern warnings about the continued use of asbestos. Guidelines proposed in the late 1970s forbade any new uses of the toxic mineral and warned individuals that any amount of asbestos exposure - no matter how small - could result in the development of serious and fatal pulmonary diseases like asbestosis and the asbestos cancer known as mesothelioma.

Indeed, new uses of asbestos ceased according to the guidelines. But 30 years later, throughout the country, myriad public buildings still contain asbestos, which is naturally mined in various parts of the world. Though mesothelioma information was widely distributed at the time of the warnings and individuals slowly became aware of the true dangers of inhaling asbestos, not everyone who owned or managed a building that contained asbestos addressed its presence. Schools were no exception. Many contained asbestos insulation, asbestos floor and ceiling tiles (usually installed for acoustical purposes), and a plethora of other building products that made use of the mineral, largely due to its excellent heat- and fire-resistant properties.

As a matter of fact, it has long been evident that asbestos has posed health risks to school teachers. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), in a study conducted between 1999 and 2001, found a substantially elevated rate of mesothelioma cancer among school teachers in the United States, whose only known exposure to the mineral was on the job. Unfortunately, mesothelioma treatment has historically done little to combat the disease, and many of these individuals have succumbed to the effects of asbestos exposure.

Parents, however, need not sit back and worry if their child is attending an older school building that may contain asbestos. Anyone who works in a particular school or has a child that attends that school has a right to be informed as to the presence of asbestos and how it is being managed. While it's not necessary to remove all asbestos, it is essential that each school has a management plan in place in case asbestos becomes damaged or crumbly, at which time it may release the dangerous fibers that can cause the asbestos cancer mesothelioma.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), established in the 1980s, any management plans must be kept up-to-date and periodic new inspections must be done to determine whether existing asbestos should be left as is, encapsulated, or removed by an abatement professional. Custodians must also be trained to recognize asbestos and how to avoid a dangerous episode should asbestos become damaged and pose a threat to the health of those inside the school.

Parents have every right to ask to see this management plan and if there is none in place or if the plan is old, school officials should be confronted. If no action is taken to correct the situation, the local EPA should be notified immediately.

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