Asbestos in Schools: A Primer for Teachers and Parents

Many people are under the impression that the toxic mineral material asbestos was banned years ago. Although the Environmental Protection Agency did put into place regulations concerning the use of asbestos in consumer goods, beginning in the 1980s, the substance is still allowable in certain amounts and applications. Moreover, it remains in existing structures, many of which are schools.

Asbestos’ peak popularity coincided with the building boom that occurred in response to the post-WWII baby boom. Asbestos was used in ceiling tiles, wallboard, floor tiles, shingles and concrete because of its fireproof and heat-resistant capabilities, as well as the fact that it is durable and strong.

When it remains intact, asbestos is considered relatively safe. Yet after it becomes “friable,” or easily damaged, it becomes much more dangerous. Friability occurs when the asbestos material is damaged in any way, or just as a result of age. At this point, the asbestos becomes a dangerous carcinogen which can lead to the rare cancer of the lungs’ lining, mesothelioma.

The EPA only requires that schools remove damaged asbestos materials, and that they manage the levels of asbestos under the requirements established by the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), which was enacted by Congress in 1986. Yet as with many regulations, there are a number of schools that are tragically in noncompliance with this act.

Schools are also required to report on their asbestos management plan once a year to the parent-teacher organization and any employee of the school or parent has the right to review the asbestos management plan at any time.

Unfortunately, the symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases may not become evident until years after the exposure to asbestos has occurred. This means that there are people who are living with this aggressive, fatal cancer without knowing it or being able to get the treatments which might extend their life.

If asbestos is found to be friable, it should be either removed following the regulations established by the EPA, which mandate the use of protective clothing and respirators, or encapsulated, following similar regulations. These renovations should only be undertaken by trained and licensed asbestos abatement professionals. After the materials are removed or encapsulated, air quality tests should be performed to ensure that the levels of asbestos particulate in the school environment fall within an acceptable range.