Back to School Could Mean Back to Asbestos for Many Students

Illustration of potential asbestos exposure in a building

More than three decades after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (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.

That is the finding by Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance based on interviews with environmentalists, school administrators, advocates for victims of asbestos-related diseases and an examination of asbestos-related incidents at schools around the country, as well as government and private studies.

“Asbestos continues to be a problem in schools, leaving students, teachers and staff at risk,” says Linda Reinstein, president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), which represents asbestos victims.

“It’s a significant problem,” says Alex Formuzis of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in Washington, which has conducted extensive research into asbestos hazards in schools. “Any school built before 1981 is presumed to contain asbestos materials.”

Gina Clayton-Tarvin, president of the Ocean View School District Board in Orange County, Ca., agrees. “It’s (asbestos) in a huge majority of our schools,” she says in an interview. “Our public schools are riddled with it.”

Dealing with Decades of Asbestos

Clayton-Tarvin learned about the problem first-hand two years ago when three of the district’s elementary schools were closed after asbestos was detected in school buildings during a modernization project. A total of 1,600 students had to be bused to other schools across Orange County, and parents pulled an additional 150 others students out of the district’s schools, resulting in loss of state revenue funds. The cost of the asbestos-abatement project combined with the costs of busing students to other schools and the lost state revenue threatened to bankrupt the district – eventually costing it about $15 million.

The continuing hazard from asbestos comes as school children across the nation are poised to return to schools this fall. Though the exact extent of the problem isn’t known, it’s clear that “the hazard is still widespread,” states a report from the EWG Action Fund, which has been researching the problem for years.

“Asbestos in schools is not only a health threat,” the EWG report states. “It is a financial burden that takes resources from education and a charged subject that can spark panic, anger, and mistrust between schools and the communities they serve. The full extent of the problem may be unknown, but it is clearly widespread.”

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

The presence of asbestos in schools doesn’t necessarily mean there is an immediate danger as long as the asbestos remains undisturbed. However, if the asbestos-containing materials are disturbed during modernization or repair work or becomes friable – that is, easily be 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.

“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 EWG’s Formuzis. “Every year, schools around the country are forced to take various levels of action to protect students, teachers and other staff from being exposed to asbestos.”

He adds, “Congress passed a law in 1986 that requires schools to conduct inspections every three years. If those records are not readily accessible, either from the school’s front office or the school district, I’d urge parents to demand they make them available. These 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.”

Asbestos Across the Nation’s Academies

The asbestos problem has impacted schools across the country, according to case studies provided by the EWG’s Formuzis and numerous press reports.

In Chicago, students, faculty and staff in Chicago schools were put at risk of exposure to deadly asbestos fibers in 184 public elementary, middle and high schools throughout the city, according to a 2016 EWG report. The report said that school inspection records show that in 2013, inspectors found friable asbestos that was damaged or showed the potential for damage in areas readily accessible to students and others, including school corridors, restrooms, teachers’ lounges, and auditoriums. Friable asbestos can easily be crumbled by hand or contact, and if damaged could become airborne and inhaled. The inspectors recommended that the asbestos be removed or repaired, but almost all of it had remained in place, the EWG report said.

In January 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the Idaho Falls School District charging that the district had fired its environmental health engineer in retaliation for her raising concerns about asbestos removal from boiler pipes at a junior high school. Federal law prohibits firing or discriminating against employees who call attention to asbestos problems.

In March 2015, a photo from an Akron, Ohio, high school that showed an asbestos-abatement worker in a protective suit inside a classroom near a DANGER sign caused an uproar when it was posted on Twitter. Said one parent: “We don’t know what’s going on in there. We haven’t been told [the facts] by anybody; all we are hearing is from the kids.”

That same month, a church-run preschool in Arlington, Va., was shut down after volunteers cleaning the building ripped up flooring, releasing asbestos dust into the air. An unidentified tipster told a local news outlet: “Chaos ensued when folks figured out what had happened … and now 100-plus kids don’t have a daycare to go to. Who knows if the church has the money to remediate asbestos.”

In February 2011, officials temporarily shut down a high school and junior high in St. Louis Park, Minnesota after finding asbestos dust from floor tiles.

For at least five months in 2010, children who attended Washington Elementary School in Berkeley, California might have been exposed to asbestos.

Here in southern California, the Ocean View district’s problems received widespread attention. Clayton-Tarvin, the school board president, says the board was initially unaware that asbestos abatement was occurring in the schools. She says she became concerned when she learned that asbestos abatement was occurring while the buildings were occupied

“My main concern was the safety of the children,” Clayton-Tarvin tells Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. “The lesson I learned is that when (a school district) is about to embark on a construction project, you need to investigate what’s behind the walls, what’s behind the ceiling, and what are we going to be exposing when you open up the walls.”

The Ocean View experience was far from an isolated example in southern California. A recent Orange County grand jury report noted that all but one of the county’s 28 school districts have asbestos present in at least one of their schools or administrative buildings. The report noted that the mere presence of encapsulated asbestos at a school site doesn’t not present any immediate danger, but it urged care during modernization and repair projects.

“The presence of encapsulated asbestos does call for continued awareness of where the asbestos is located, for extreme care not to disturb encapsulated asbestos during modifications or repairs of a facility, and for continued monitoring for wear and tear of asbestos-containing materials,” the grand jury report said. “Districts must know how to inspect for, contract for, schedule and manage removal (abatement) of asbestos and other hazardous materials prior to and during construction work.”

The report noted that 21 Orange County districts were embarking on modernization and repair projects, the time of greatest risk of asbestos exposure from encapsulated asbestos.

Pushing for a Better Asbestos Policy

All of this has continued to occur decades after the EPA first warned about the problem of asbestos in schools. In 1980, the agency issued a sobering study stating: “The agency has determined that exposure to asbestos in school buildings poses a significant hazard to public health.,” the EPA said in the study, titled Asbestos-Containing Materials in Schools: Health Effects and Magnitude of Exposure.

Four years later, in 1984, the EPA conducted a survey of 2,600 public school districts and private schools to try to determine the extent of the problem. Based on the survey, EPA estimated that 15 million students and 1.4 million teachers, administrators and other employees were at risk of exposure to asbestos. That three-decades-old survey was the last time the federal government took an extensive look at the dangers of asbestos in American schools.

In 1986, Congress passed the 1986 Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) in an effort to protect students, teachers and other school workers. But last year, U.S. Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass. and Barbara Boxer, D-Cal, wrote to the governors of all 50 states asking for detailed information on asbestos in each state’ schools. They received responses from only 20 of the states.

In a December 2015 report titled Failing the Grade: Asbestos in America’s Schools, the Senators concluded that the scope of asbestos hazards in schools in the United States is likely widespread but remains difficult to ascertain; that states do not appear to be systematically monitoring, investigating, or address asbestos hazards in schools, and that states do not report conducting regular inspections of local education agencies to detect asbestos and enforce compliance. They also said that oversight of the 1986 law was “insufficient.”

“The simplest questions, including how many schools continue to harbor asbestos-containing materials, remain unanswered by many states,” the report says, recommending that the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act be strengthened to require EPA to evaluate each state’s compliance every 10 years and increase funds for enforcement.

Formuzis of the Environmental Working Group agrees that reforms are long overdue.“It’s time for Congress to step up and figure out a way to better protect our students and teachers from this known human carcinogen,” he says.