Chicago Public Schools Ignoring Asbestos Problem

Illustration of potential asbestos exposure in a building

A report from Univision Chicago recently shed light on the inactivity of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) with respect to removing asbestos from its schools. About a dozen schools were supposed to undergo abatement for friable asbestos per environmental regulations, but it has not yet happened according to multiple sources.

The reports were prompted by concerned parents of children attending CPS, who approached Social Justice News Nexus (SJNN) at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and Univision Chicago. Together, SJNN and Univision reviewed inspector recommendations from 2013 and 2015 to see whether CPS had complied.

Any asbestos exposure could eventually lead to the development of mesothelioma, a frequently fatal form of cancer. In fact, the U.S. government issued warnings in the 1970s about exposure to this toxic mineral, but many older buildings, including public schools across the country, still contain asbestos. Insulation, floor and ceiling tiles, and many other products made use of the mineral due its heat- and fire-resistant properties.

As a result of an act established in the 1980s by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, all schools must have asbestos management plans in place. These must be updated with periodic inspections to determine whether any discovered asbestos should be left as is, encapsulated, or removed by an abatement professional. Custodians are also required to be trained to recognize asbestos and taught how to avoid an episode should it pose a health threat to individuals inside a school.

In 2013, inspectors told CPS to remove or repair all asbestos discovered in Little Village Maria Saucedo Academy, Bridgeport’s Philip D. Armour Elementary School, and Humboldt Park’s Roberto Clemente Community Academy. The report reveals that CPS failed to take appropriate action in each of these schools.

According to Investigative Reporter for Univision Chicago Adriana Cardona-Maguigad, a 2016 report by the Environmental Working Group shows only a small percentage of CPS schools are following inspectors’ recommendations. Out of 184 schools, only 11 followed through with the asbestos work, which means the problem still exists in about 200 CPS schools today.

Students aren’t the only factor to consider. In a study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, a substantially elevated rate of mesothelioma cancer was found among teachers where the only known exposure for each participant was on the job.

CPS isn’t the only district with an asbestos problem. Although according to Cardona-Maguigad, schools with more resources tend to go ahead and remove the asbestos, not just encapsulate or fail to remove it like CPS.