It can be understandably scary to discover that the school your child attends contains asbestos. If there’s one thing that parents should be able to count on, it’s that their children will be safe at school. However, many buildings in the United States that were built between the 1940s and the 1970s incorporated the fire-retardant material in their construction, and schools were no exception.
Schools Are Likely to Still Contain Asbestos
While it’s easy to be drawn into the notion that asbestos exposure has become a non-issue since its dangers were discovered, the risk is still very real for too many people across the nation.
The unfortunate truth is that schools built before the 1980s are quite likely to contain asbestos, whether in their insulation, pipes, ceiling tiles, floor tiles, roofing or drywall. The backing of some blackboards used to contain asbestos, as did some tables in labs and classrooms. While these are less likely to be present in modern schools, asbestos use in constructing schools places teachers and students in significant danger.
If you’re concerned about the possibility of asbestos in your child’s school, you have a right to be. Before you decide how to proceed, ensure you understand what types of dangers might be present—and what the school can do to help.
Asbestos in Schools: A Lurking Danger
These days, the dangers presented by asbestos are greatly reduced. While it’s important to note the potential presence of it in schools across the U.S., it’s equally as important to remember that its presence does not mean that your child is being or has been exposed to the material.
Asbestos does not become a health hazard until it is disturbed by repairs or other interferences. For example, if asbestos is present in ceiling tiles which are then drilled during a renovation or somehow broken, the fibers will become airborne and hazardous.
Most asbestos-related illnesses stem from the ingestion of asbestos fibers, and this ingestion becomes more likely when the asbestos-containing material crumbles or releases dust.
Asbestos can also become a hazard when it begins to deteriorate on its own. Building features like asbestos cement roofs may simply break down by the process of aging. This is why it’s necessary to address asbestos by either sealing it, enclosing it, or having a professional remove it entirely.
As you can see, the presence of asbestos in your child’s school does not mean there is an immediate risk. It does, however, mean that there is an increased chance of exposure over time, and ensuring that students and staff are protected should be of the highest priority.
What’s Being Done About Asbestos in Schools?
What really counts when it comes to the issue of asbestos in schools is what’s being done about it—and right now that means not nearly enough. Congress passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, (also known as AHERA) with the goal of protecting students and employees of schools from asbestos exposure in school buildings. The Act also detailed that the removal of asbestos should be handled by professionals who can do it safely.
AHERA required education agencies in each state to regularly inspect their local schools, oversee the professional removal of asbestos when deemed appropriate and train employees on the best processes for dealing with asbestos in schools.
But in more than 3 decades since AHERA became law, not enough has been done. The current state of asbestos in schools is uncertain, and efforts to investigate how (and whether) AHERA is being properly implemented have provided little insight.
Not Enough Support for Asbestos Removal From Schools
In 2015, Senators Markey and Boxer wrote to governors in every state to inquire about the implementation and enforcement of AHERA in their respective states. Sadly, they did not receive responses from 30 states.
This shows that the need to protect our students from asbestos is not being taken nearly as seriously as it should be. While the same senators used their findings to advocate for the allocation of funds for better AHERA enforcement, we still have a long way to go.
Hopefully, the Act will be amended accordingly, so that the EPA can also evaluate states’ AHERA programs every 10 years and require the states to provide updated information to the EPA regarding their progress.
If this amendment is made, it will highlight a positive change for students, staff, and the public at large, showing everyone that effective change is possible when it is pushed for.