Asbestos in Schools May Lead to Teachers Developing Mesothelioma
Many buildings built before 1980 contain some form of asbestos, a chemical that was touted as a great way to prevent fires from spreading throughout homes and schools. However, in 1980, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledged the link between asbestos and mesothelioma, as well as other lung problems and cancers, and began a 10-year-campaign to ban asbestos. While buildings no longer use this dangerous compound, asbestos is difficult to remove from older buildings – including the nation’s schools.
“The Agency has determined that exposure to asbestos in school buildings poses a significant hazard to public health,” the EPA stated in its 1980 ban. Both teachers and students were at risk of developing problems ranging from asthma to lung cancer – and those in the buildings for the longest, the teachers, were at risk for developing mesothelioma due to exposure to asbestos. To help protect the population, Congress passed the 1986 Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act.
Unfortunately, not much has changed. On March 31st, 2015, Sens. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) contacted the governors of all 50 states for updates on asbestos removal and bans. While the EPA acknowledged in 1982 that somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 teachers at 8,600 schools nationwide were exposed to airborne asbestos due to the construction of the school building, the financial difficulty in removing asbestos from old buildings, or tearing down and rebuilding schools, has stymied states’ efforts to remove the hazardous material from necessary public buildings.
“[A]sbestos removal is generally necessary only when the material damage is extensive and severe, and other actions will not control fiber release. Although the (asbestos) rule does not prohibit schools from removing asbestos materials, removal decisions should not be made lightly. An ill-conceived or poorly conducted removal can actually increase rather than eliminate risk,” the EPA’s asbestos guidebook ominously states.
The country’s teachers, as well as children, are still at risk, even when the school district manages to remove asbestos from the building
. In October 2014, Southern Californian parents were outraged when they learned that the Ocean View School District failed to warn them that contractors would be removing asbestos from school buildings. Worse, the contractors allegedly removed the material unsafely, meaning that asbestos was kicked up into the air and exposed thousands of teachers, students, and administrators to the particles.
To determine the deadly extent of asbestos-related illnesses, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted a study from 1999 to 2001. The study uncovered an elevated rate, compared to the general population, of mesothelioma among former school teachers. One researcher found that, in New York alone, 4 teachers had developed pleural mesothelioma, and their only contact with asbestos came from the schools in which they worked. The study found that in 1999 alone, 13 teachers died because of mesothelioma – construction workers were the only group with a higher mesothelioma mortality rate, probably due to higher exposure to the material. Elementary school teachers are still twice as likely to die from mesothelioma, compared to the general population.
According to the 1986 law, schools must be inspected for asbestos every 3 years, and if the material is found, the school must either remove the asbestos or use EPA-approved sealants to ensure that no fibers leak out of the walls. The asbestos management plan must be made available to the public within 5 days of the plan’s completion. However, the EPA allows schools to file for a waiver due to financial issues, which allows the schools to develop and implement their own asbestos safety plans. The EPA acknowledges that 12 states have received the waivers.
In 2010, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) used the Freedom of Information Act to gain documents from the Massachusetts Division of Occupational Safety. These documents showed that between 1998 and 2008, no more than 27% of schools in the state of Massachusetts alone was in compliance with asbestos regulations. Much of the time, 9 out of 10 of the schools were in violation.