When people think of those who might be occupationally exposed to asbestos, they think of people in the construction or industrial trades. People don’t often think of teachers, but they spend many hours every day of their careers in schools that have poor ventilation and a high potential for asbestos exposure. From the 1940s through the 1970s asbestos was used extensively in public buildings, including schools. It was used in insulation, boiler rooms, electrical and plumbing tape, ceiling and floor tiles, lab tables, drywall, and even chalk board backing. At the height of its popularity, asbestos was used in more than 3,000 products in the United States. Asbestos can be released into the air anytime it is disturbed or the product containing it is damaged.
Sadly, the dangers of asbestos were ignored for many years. The ancient Greeks noted that slaves who worked with asbestos died younger than those who didn’t work with asbestos. Studies in the United States and England during the early 1900s confirmed the knowledge that asbestos caused respiratory problems. By the 1930s medical journals were even publishing articles about the link between asbestos and cancer. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that the United States began to take the dangers seriously.
In 1984, the EPA released a report that indicated that as many as 1.4 million teachers and other school employees were exposed to asbestos in the ambient air at their schools. Following this report the EPA required schools to have adequate asbestos abatement and inspection plans. While strengthening the protections for teachers and other people in schools, many schools still have asbestos that can become airborne during remodeling, maintenance and even asbestos abatement. In a study conducted from 1999 through 2001, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that teachers have a higher rate of mesothelioma than members of the general public. The Environmental Working Group found that 137 teachers died from malignant mesothelioma between 1985 and 1999.
Numbers like these show that asbestos was an occupational hazard for teachers, and doesn’t bode well for the respiratory health of students who have attended these asbestos-laden schools. Any time asbestos is disturbed it can release into the air thousands of microscopic dust particles that are subject to being inhaled by anyone in the vicinity. When the particles enter the lungs they become imbedded in the tissue causing irritation. Over time the irritation forms scar tissue and interferes with the person’s ability to breathe. Asbestos is also a carcinogen causing a number of forms of asbestos cancer, including lung and gastrointestinal cancers as well as mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma in its most common form is pleural mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the membrane that surrounds the lungs and lines the interior of the chest and abdominal cavity. Like most asbestos-related problems, it has a long latency period, not showing up for 30 years or more after initial asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma starts with a mild impact on a person’s ability to catch their breath after exercising. Most people don’t even notice the problem. As the cancer gets worse, so does the difficulty in breathing. The person also suffers increasingly severe chest pain.
If the cancer is caught in the earliest stages the preferred treatment is removal of the tumor and tissue that surrounds the tumor. If the mesothelioma has already metastasized, surgery is less effective as a treatment. For advanced cancer the treatment is usually a combination of chemotherapy and radiation, sometimes in conjunction with surgery, to slow the growth of cancer. Mesothelioma is resistant to most anti-cancer drugs, and although medical advances are being made regularly, there is no cure for mesothelioma.