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As of 2015, there were an estimated 131,000 public and private schools operating in the United States. Of those schools, about one-third are believed to contain asbestos, a dangerous mineral once used in construction materials and consumer goods. This means about 15 million students and 1.4 million school employees, including teachers, may be exposed to asbestos found within these buildings.

Nearly half of all primary and secondary school buildings in the United States were built between 1950 and 1969, a time when asbestos use was near its peak. As a result, the average age of a school today is about 44 years old. In the 1970s, the federal government began regulating asbestos use and banned a number of applications to prevent future exposure. However, despite taking action to reduce the amount of asbestos used during school construction and renovations, many older buildings still likely contain the toxic mineral and could be putting people at risk of asbestos exposure.

Where Asbestos Was Used

Asbestos was largely used as a fire retardant in building materials and can be found today in a number of locations, including in surfacing materials and thermal system installations found in boiler rooms and in classrooms. Asbestos has also been discovered in products used by school children and teachers, like crayons.

Common Asbestos-Containing Materials Found in Schools
  • Acoustic panels
  • Asbestos sprays
  • Boilers
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Duct adhesive
  • Duct insulation
  • Gaskets
  • Heating ducts
  • Sheetrock
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Wiring insulation

Many of these items are likely to be found in older buildings. Though asbestos is not considered dangerous when in good condition, considering the current average age of schools in the United States, asbestos-containing materials in these facilities may be at a higher risk of wearing down and releasing fibers. Close to a quarter of all schools surveyed by the National Center for Education Statistics were reported to be in “fair” or “poor” condition.

Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says there is no safe level of exposure, removing asbestos from an elementary school or secondary school is expensive and sometimes cost prohibitive. While schools do receive funding from state and federal sources, local municipalities cover close to half of a building’s operating costs and more than 80% of capital costs.

Mesothelioma Risks for Students and Teachers

Asbestos has been linked to diseases including mesothelioma, asbestosis and asbestos-related lung cancer. According to the EPA’s Office of Inspector General, children are at an increased risk of asbestos exposure for several reasons. Students, especially young children, are more likely to breathe in fibers through their mouths, are more active, breathe faster than adults and tend to spend more time on the floor, where asbestos fibers are likely to settle.

Children are also more likely to put things in their mouths, including toys, crayons and other products that could potentially contain asbestos. The toxic mineral has been found in toys on numerous occasions, including in 2018, when asbestos was discovered in packs of Playskool crayons sold in dollar stores and online. A similar incident occurred in 2015, when the mineral was found in multiple brands of crayons sold in dollar stores. Studies have found that individuals exposed to asbestos as children have a higher risk of developing mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases later in life than people exposed to asbestos as adults.

School teachers also have higher rates of mesothelioma compared to other occupations, and have a greater risk of dying from the disease than the general public. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), teachers have a proportionate mortality ratio of 2.1, which is close to other high-risk occupations like plumbers, electricians and mechanical engineers. To address the issue, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken several actions to protect teachers, school children and other faculty members from the carcinogenic mineral.

Asbestos Regulations in Schools

Asbestos fibers pose health risks to anyone exposed, so the federal government has established regulations to prevent incidents from occurring. The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) requires all school districts, including public, non-profit private schools and religious schools, to perform inspections in their buildings for asbestos-containing materials and prepare management plans to rectify issues when they’re found. These rules, however, do not extend to private for-profit schools. Colleges are also not covered under AHERA rules, though they must adhere to EPA and OSHA regulations.

Other regulations associated with AHERA include:

  • Employees must receive asbestos awareness training prior to handling materials.
  • After an initial inspection, all buildings must be inspected every three years.
  • If asbestos is found, those materials should be visually checked every six months.
  • School districts must keep employee and parent organizations up-to-date by issuing annual notifications about asbestos management and removal projects.

Although airborne asbestos is a cause for concern, not every asbestos-containing building material is dangerous. Materials and products in good condition are largely considered safe, but an AHERA designated person should monitor the situation to ensure corrective actions are performed when materials begin showing signs of wear or damage.

However, reports have noted some difficulties in adhering to the AHERA regulations, including problems with the EPA keeping up with school inspections and implementing the program in general. According to the EPA’s Office of Inspector General 2018 report, of the ten regional offices tasked with monitoring asbestos in schools, only one had a compliance strategy in place, while five others only performed asbestos inspections when they received a complaint. The report also noted that between 2011 and 2015, the EPA only conducted about 13% of all AHERA inspections. All other inspections were performed by states with the jurisdiction to inspect their schools, meaning the agency may not fully know if the process is being correctly implemented.

In addition to AHERA regulations, school districts must also adhere to other federal regulations meant to minimize the amount of asbestos fibers released into the air during abatement. The National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) requires asbestos-containing materials to be wetted during the abatement process and removed as quickly and completely as possible. Asbestos materials must be placed in clearly marked leak-tight containers that will prevent fibers from escaping into the air. Each step is meant to reduce health risks for students, teachers and the general public and ensure the asbestos abatement process is done effectively.

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