Over 200 Chicago Public Schools Face The Threat of Asbestos

Illustration of potential asbestos exposure in a building

About 200 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) face the threat of asbestos health hazards inside their buildings, including Kenwood Academy High School and Kozminski Community Academy.

The asbestos not only poses a health threat, but also significant damage to the ceiling tiles of rooms 234, 315, and 325 at Kenwood. The fiberglass pipe insulation running throughout the school and the tank insulation in the mechanical room are also areas of concern. For Kozminski, the pipe insulation in the basement poses the largest hazard.

Records dating back to 2013 show inspectors contracted by CPS district discovered damaged friable asbestos in 184 public elementary, middle, and high schools throughout Chicago. The experts suggested removal of the asbestos or, at a minimum, repair to decrease the health risks. Yet, all of the identified asbestos still exists in its 2013 state.

Most buildings built in the U.S. before 1980 contain asbestos, so the dangerous mineral showing up in schools isn’t new. Not until the late 1970s were guidelines proposed to prohibit any new uses of the toxic mineral and warn individuals that exposure to asbestos—no matter how small—could result in the development of serious and fatal pulmonary diseases like asbestosis and mesothelioma cancer.

Information about mesothelioma was widely distributed at the time, so individuals slowly became aware of the true dangers. But not everyone who owned or managed a building that contained asbestos addressed its presence.

Schools were no exception. Many contained asbestos insulation, floor, and ceiling tiles. A variety of other school building products made use of the material, largely due to its excellent heat-and fire-resistant properties.

Asbestos in schools isn’t just a threat to students, but teachers as well. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) did a study in the U.S. from 1999 to 2001 on the matter. The results revealed a substantially elevated rate of mesothelioma cancer amongst schoolteachers, whose only known exposure to asbestos was on the job.

Any parent or anyone who works in a school has the right to be informed of the presence of asbestos and how the situation is being managed. According to regulations, not all of the asbestos needs to be removed, but each school must have a management plan in place in case the asbestos becomes damaged or crumbles.

Parents also have the right to review the plan. If there isn’t an asbestos management plan in place, the local U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should be notified immediately.

“Addressing environmental issues is a priority for the District because we are committed to providing a safe and welcoming environment for our students and staff,” said CPS Communications Director, Emily Bittner.

“CPS is making continued investment in remediating environmental issues, including asbestos. In the past five years, CPS has spent roughly $54 million on environmental remediation work that was incorporated into capital improvement projects throughout the district,” stated Bittner in a written response.