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Earlier this month, testing for asbestos at McGill Hall at the University of Montana raised concerns about the safety of students, particularly preschoolers who actively attended school in these classrooms. Abatement specialists found concerning levels of asbestos, well above the recommended limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to law, permissible amounts of asbestos should not exceed 5,000 fibers per square centimeter. After swiping a table in one of the classrooms, which had been used and cleaned regularly, specialists found over 15,000 fibers per square centimeter. Other areas of the classrooms contained even higher concentrations of asbestos.
Though 47 preschoolers were eventually moved from the classrooms, parents criticized the school for not taking action early enough. The EPA states that no level of asbestos exposure is considered safe, and it can be decades before health effects from exposure may surface. Recently, new reports came out showing the school last had asbestos inspections and abatement work done in 2011.
Asbestos Abatement at UM
According to public documents available, the most recent asbestos abatement work done at the University of Montana was completed in the summer of 2011. Between that summer and the testing conducted in December 2018, it’s unclear if the school had any other asbestos inspections or testing for the toxin completed, though no public documentation is available.
The 2011 visual inspection notes that the abatement specialists noted a risk of asbestos from various asbestos products in a number of locations at the school including wallboard, sheet vinyl flooring, and mastic, joint compounds and window putty. At the time of the inspection, specialists noted that materials were considered non-friable, meaning they were intact and not releasing any fibers into the air. The specialists took various samples of materials from suspect areas of the building, including bathrooms, a kitchen, and several classrooms. Varying amounts of chrysotile and amosite asbestos, ranging from about 3 – 50% were found in some of the samples in the corridor, kitchen, and bathroom.
Once asbestos was confirmed, the school followed through with abatement work to have the asbestos removed or properly concealed to prevent fibers from becoming airborne. Following abatement, as per federal and state regulations, certified professionals performed a visual inspection to ensure all areas were clean of any potential asbestos debris, as well as took air samples for analysis.
From their samples and visual inspections, abatement specialists concluded that the abatement work was completed satisfactorily and there were no longer asbestos threats in the previously noted areas of the school. Though all the proper regulations were followed by the abatement specialists, the University of Montana only released these documents for a limited area of the school that was inspected prior to potential renovations. Based on the events earlier this month that likely exposed preschoolers to dangerous amounts of asbestos, the toxin is still a problem in many other areas of the school and continues to be a health risk.
The Need for Better Regulations to Prevent Asbestos Exposure at Schools
Unfortunately, the events at the University of Montana are not isolated incidents. Studies have shown thousands of schools across the United States, and even more globally, are still contaminated with dangerous asbestos products. With recent estimates, studies suggest about 15 million students and 1.4 million faculty at these contaminated schools are at risk of exposure.
Though there are a number of regulations in place to help protect students and teachers alike from asbestos, colleges are not regulated by the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), which requires all school districts to perform inspections in their buildings for asbestos-containing materials and have management plans in place for any asbestos that is found. Per AHERA, asbestos inspections should take place at least once every three years. While colleges do not have to adhere by regulations in place from AHERA, they still must abide by other EPA and OSHA regulations to prevent exposure, like the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), as well as specific state laws like Montana’s Asbestos Control Act.
According to the school website, the University of Montana does have an asbestos maintenance plan in place that was last updated in 2009. The document explains that the school has undergone one full asbestos survey in 1984, which is available for review. The plan further details how asbestos inspections must be completed before any renovation or construction work, with special considerations for certain buildings on campus that already underwent asbestos abatement work. The plan also states personnel will complete periodic surveillance of areas with known asbestos materials, though does not specify frequency.
Overall, incidents like the dangerous levels of exposure at UM highlight the need for more strict asbestos regulations and a ban. Until the toxin is no longer used and old uses of the mineral are better monitored, the public continues to face exposure and serious health risks like mesothelioma.