Mismanaged Asbestos In US Schools Threatens Millions Of Children And Teachers

08/29/2016 07:25 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2016
Phil Roeder/Flickr

Setting your kids up for a successful new school year is no easy feat. Organizing class schedules, meeting new teachers, back to school shopping—the list goes on, and it’s daunting.

I hate to break it to you, but you need to add one more item to that new school year to-do list: educate yourself on where asbestos is in your children’s schools and how to make sure your kids are safe.

The bad news is that asbestos likely lurks in many parts of the classrooms and school grounds you send your little scholars to every day—the floors, the ceilings, the walls—just to name a few. The good news is that you as parents have the right to question the presence of asbestos your schools and how the risk is being managed. It’s up to you, though, to learn the law and ask the questions. Here are the basics:

The Scope of the Problem

In 1984, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated “that there are asbestos containing materials in most of the nation’s approximately 107,000 primary and secondary schools and 733,000 public and commercial buildings.” What’s worse—the EPA survey found that “approximately 34,800 schools were believed to have friable ACM [asbestos-containing materials], potentially exposing an estimated 15 million students and 1.4 million school employees.”

Translation: if your kids are in an American school, public or private, they’re in an environment where asbestos exposure could become a viable threat if not properly managed or removed, and this is openly acknowledged by the U.S. government.

You’re probably thinking, “But that was the ‘80s—the asbestos issue is old news now, right?”

Wrong. Just last year, U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Ed Markey conducted an investigation to see how schools were protecting students, teachers and staff from asbestos exposure. What they found confirms that the widespread, poorly managed risk of asbestos contamination in America’s schools is as bad as ever.

The report from this investigation, “Failing the Grade: Asbestos in America’s Schools”, revealed that as of 2015:

  • More than two-thirds of state education agencies reported having schools that contain asbestos, most of which has been left in place.

  • School districts do not appear to be systematically monitoring, investigating or addressing asbestos hazards in schools, or keeping records.

You don’t have to look hard—or far from home—to find a story of asbestos exposure in schools. Students in Cedar Grove, New Jersey are starting this school year in temporary classrooms in another county after tests during a construction project over the summer revealed elevated levels of asbestos in some school buildings.

In 2014, the Huntington Beach School District suddenly closed three schools after receiving results confirming the presence of asbestos in classrooms, displacing hundreds of students for months, sometimes even years. The district was forced to spend millions in costs related to the emergency abatement—the total unexpected expenditures are estimated at $6 million per school, or $18 million collectively, which included a weekly $50,000 expense for busing the displaced students to other schools.

Learn The Law

The 1986 Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) was enacted in response to the EPA’s 1984 report detailing widespread asbestos contamination in America’s schools. AHERA mandated that public school districts and private schools are obligated to regularly inspect buildings for asbestos and adopt suitable measures, including abatement, in order to protect students, school employees and volunteers.

The law further requires schools to:

  • Inspect their schools for asbestos-containing building material

  • Prepare management plans

  • Take action to prevent or reduce asbestos hazards

Perhaps most importantly, AHERA explicitly grants parents the right to question the school’s adherence with the law and request copies of the legally required asbestos management plans and inspection records.

At first blush, this law seems like a pretty decent protective measure. In many cases when it comes to older buildings, the safest way to manage asbestos is to leave it in place, but monitor its condition and act swiftly when it first appears to pose a threat. In theory, AHERA codifies this common sense protocol. The 2015 Boxer-Markey investigation revealed, though, that the vast majority of school districts aren’t even complying with this important policy.

Boxer and Markey sent letters to the governors of all 50 states “to inquire about the implementation and enforcement of AHERA.” They received responses from fewer than half of the governors they queried—only 20, or 40 percent.

As the investigation report notes, many states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are not taking steps to audit or enforce AHERA requirements. State responses suggest that compliance with AHERA is largely left to the school districts and exposes some significant shortfalls, including the absence of federal funds from EPA.

What You Can Do

Ultimately there needs to be a better system of oversight put into place to ensure AHERA offers the protection it is intended to provide. Until then, though, parents must take on the watchdog role. No one has more at stake in this, and no one has more of a right to force a change. If you request information, the school district is required by law to respond.

Following these simple steps can help parents prevent exposure at school:

  • Educate yourself about the dangers of asbestos exposure

  • Inspect the school’s asbestos management plan

  • If you suspect danger, seek answers and guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Fighting for a Better Future

The federal government must take seriously the threat of exposing our schoolchildren to asbestos and take steps to rectify the poor enforcement of AHERA, an incredibly important, lifesaving law. The EPA has long known of the dangers of asbestos—so much so that they tried to ban it in 1989, only to have the ban overturned by litigation. If the evidence against asbestos was conclusive enough to push for a ban nearly 30 years ago, it should be sufficient reason to ensure America’s children are protected from it.

The EPA was recently empowered to finally follow through on that failed ban by the enactment of The Lautenberg Act reforms to our chemical safety laws. Perhaps if the EPA fields enough asbestos-in-schools complaints from concerned parents, they’ll begin to understand why it is so crucial that they start taking much needed federal action against this silent killer that has remained legal and lethal for far too long.

As Sen. Boxer wrote in an August 2016 letter to the EPA, federal regulatory action on asbestos is necessary “to build confidence in the agency’s ability to deliver meaningful results for our children and families.”

Parents have more than enough to worry about when they send their kids off to school these days; the entirely preventable threat of asbestos exposure shouldn’t have to be on that list of concerns.

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