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On a daily basis, students, teachers, school staff, and administrators are unknowingly exposed to a harmful carcinogen: asbestos, a continued health threat in schools today and the only known cause of mesothelioma. This naturally-occurring, carcinogenic mineral was once widely used in the construction of schools for its fire-retardant qualities.
To date, countries including France, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom have all banned this carcinogenic substance because of the undeniable public health risk. In spite of the fact that there are known health risks from being exposed to asbestos, it is still legal in the United States.
Today, asbestos can still be found hiding in places such as floor and ceiling tiles, cement, paint, and bulletin boards. Across the nation, most states and school districts conduct regular checks for asbestos, and this year marks the 30th anniversary of the federal Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, which was signed into law in 1986 and aims to protect students, teachers and school staff from the dangers of asbestos. However, it does not protect against the long-term side effects.
According to the Environmental Working Group Action Fund’s Vice President Alex Formuzis, any school built before 1981 most likely contains asbestos. The group also claims that many states are not addressing the issue the way they need to.
The Fight Against Asbestos in Schools
There are many officials who are fighting this battle against asbestos in schools. In January 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor filed a lawsuit against Idaho Falls School District for “fir[ing] its environmental health engineer in retaliation for her raising concerns about asbestos removal.” Getting rid of asbestos from school buildings can be timely and costly, which is why so many school districts are still attempting to sweep their issues under the rug.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concurs that “asbestos-containing materials reside in many of the approximately 132,000 primary and secondary schools in the nation.” They state, however, that as long as asbestos building materials are in good condition, they pose minimal health risks and schools should not disturb them.
At the same time, it’s relatively easy to disturb asbestos. It can be exposed with something as simple as paint chipping from the wall, a ceiling tile caving in, or a floor tile upending. From wear and tear and years upon years of use, an incident such as this frequently occurs, and when it does occur, the risks are high.
Potential Risks, Real Consequences
This past November, several students from the University of Florida were displaced from their dorms when ceiling tiles were damaged by water, unveiling large amounts of asbestos-containing materials and putting the students at risk. Similarly, asbestos was found in Harvard building materials, forcing an undergraduate to leave his dorm. Administrators said that the levels of asbestos posed no health risk, but according to the U.S. Department of Labor, there is no “safe” amount of exposure to asbestos.
Construction on a Montgomery County middle school in Maryland was interrupted when asbestos tiles were found on site.
In January of this year, a retired schoolteacher from England died from malignant mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Elizabeth Belt’s cancer was linked to her years of exposure to asbestos in the bulletin boards that hung in her classrooms.
Asbestos materials were banned in the UK in the 1980s, but the latency period between time of asbestos exposure and diagnosis is notoriously long for a number of reasons, including issues with misdiagnosis because of the disease’s rarity and delayed onset of symptoms.
With asbestos-containing building materials still legal in the United States, many doctors and researchers predict that the numbers of asbestos-related disease will significantly increase in the years to come.