Hallway at School

Millions of children who attend schools in the United States built before the 1980s are at risk of being exposed to harmful asbestos – yet there are important steps parents can take to protect their children.

Those steps include:

“Just because a school contains materials made with asbestos should not be reason for parents and caregivers to panic, but they should be understandably concerned,” says Alex Formuzis of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in Washington, D.C., which has done extensive research into the hazards of asbestos in American schools.

Linda Reinstein, president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), agrees. She urges parents to be “vigilant” in making sure federal laws and regulations intended to protect students, teachers and other school employees in schools are enforced. “As a mesothelioma widow and mom, I’ve learned the hard way – asbestos kills,” she says.

Nearly all U.S. schools built between the 1940s through the 1970s contain asbestos, which was widely used as a fireproofing building material. In fact, any building constructed before 1981 is presumed to contain asbestos, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Why Asbestos Vigilance Is Important

As the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance reported last week, more than three decades after the EPA issued a warning about the dangers of asbestos in American schools, the potential harm to students, teachers, and other school employees continues to exist. In Orange County, Ca., three elementary schools in the Ocean View School District were closed in 2014 after asbestos was discovered in school buildings during a modernization project. In Chicago, inspectors found friable asbestos that was damaged or showed the potential for damage in school corridors, restrooms, teachers’ lounges and auditoriums at 184 public schools, putting students, faculty and staff at risk.

“Across the United States, too many students and teachers continue to be at risk of inhaling harmful asbestos fibers in their schools’ classrooms, cafeterias and hallways,” states Megan Boyle, writing in Healthy Child, Healthy World, a website aimed at empowering parents to take action and protect children from harmful chemicals. Earlier this year, the site published Boyle’s excellent blog post titled “How to Talk to Your Child’s School about Asbestos.”

As children go back to school this year, here are some steps that parents should take:

Understand the risk of asbestos exposure

If you child’s school was built before 1980, it almost certainly contains asbestos materials. The mere presence of asbestos in schools doesn’t necessarily mean there is an immediate danger as long as asbestos remains undisturbed. But if asbestos-containing materials are disturbed during repairs or modernization projects or becomes friable – that is, easily crumbled by hand or contact – asbestos fibers can be released into the air and inhaled.

Asbestos has long been identified as a carcinogen, and there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.

Bottom line: You should be especially vigilant if your school is undertaking a modernization or repair project, as many older schools are.

Understand the law and regulations aimed at protecting students and teachers

The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) of 1986 requires public, private and charter schools to inspect their buildings for asbestos-containing materials and prepare management plans and to take action to prevent or reduce asbestos hazards. The inspections must be conducted every three years, according to the EPA.

Under the law, schools are specifically required to do all of the following:

  1. 1. Perform an original inspection to determine whether asbestos-containing materials are present and then re-inspect asbestos-containing material in each school every three years.
  2. 2. Develop, maintain an asbestos management plan and keep a copy at the school available for public inspection. The management plan contains important information, including the date of the last inspection, whether asbestos was discovered and any remedial actions are being taken.
  3. 3. Provide yearly notification to parent, teacher and employee organizations on the availability of the school’s asbestos management plan and any asbestos-related actions taken or planned at the school.
  4. 4. Designate a contact person to ensure the responsibilities of school are properly carried out. The contact person is required to be available to answer questions from parents and the public.

Understand your rights to inspect inspection reports and a school’s management plan – and be relentless in demanding access to them

Inspection reports and the asbestos management plan are public documents. The school is required to keep a copy available to parents and others for public inspection. So parents should be persistent in seeking access to those records.

“If those records are not readily accessible from the school’s front office or the school district, I’d urge parents to demand they make they available,” says the EWG’s Formuzis. “Those records are, in many ways, the best evidence of whether or not their children are in the areas of the school where asbestos is present.”

If you suspect danger, seek answers and guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

That advice comes from ADAO’s Reinstein. In fact, the EPA provides helpful information on its web site, including a posting dealing Asbestos Laws and Regulations and another on School Buildings. The information is available in both English and Spanish-language versions.

In urging vigilance, Reinstein says that nothing is more important than protecting students and teachers.

“Students, teachers and staff should be protected from asbestos,” she says. “The fear of the unknown is unimaginable when a child has been exposed at school. With each cough, a parent waits in anguish, wondering if their child will one day be diagnosed with an asbestos-caused disease. There is no safe level of asbestos exposure, as prevention remains the only cure.”