Asbestos was used in a wide range of building materials until the 1980s, including spray-on ceiling materials, structural beams, and pipe and boiler insulation. In 1980, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that more than 8,500 schools had asbestos and that over 3 million children were potentially exposed to the deadly toxin in some form.
Asbestos in Schools: A Grave Concern
Today, asbestos in schools can still be found within acoustic insulation, thermal insulation, fireproofing, roofing, flooring, and other materials. Although these materials are considered relatively safe when in good condition, they can deteriorate over time and become dangerous if damaged or disturbed in some way.
Childhood exposure to asbestos in schools is particularly concerning because of the long latency periods associated with asbestos-related disease. One serious form of asbestos cancer, mesothelioma, can take up to 60 years to develop. While a middle-aged adult exposed to asbestos may never be diagnosed with mesothelioma – simply because he does not live long enough for it to develop – children have a long lifespan ahead of them. That is why avoiding early exposure to asbestos in schools is critical.
Asbestos in Schools: Legislation
In 1986, Congress passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), which applies to public school districts and non-profit private schools. AHERA set forth a series of guidelines regarding the handling of asbestos in schools. These rules included:
- Inspections for asbestos in schools every three years
- The development of plans for the management of asbestos in schools
- The annual notification of parents, teachers, and employee groups of the status of asbestos in schools and any actions taken
- The designation of a contact person to oversee the handling of asbestos in schools
- Accreditation checks for those inspecting, creating, and implementing the plans for the management of asbestos in schools
- Provision of asbestos-awareness training for custodial staff
In July 1991, the EPA released the results of a study of AHERA’s effectiveness, which concluded that some aspects of school asbestos programs were not being properly implemented.
Asbestos in Schools: An Enduring Problem
Given the high costs and potential risks associated with asbestos abatement projects, the issue of asbestos in schools has been the subject of heated debate across the nation. Yet until the presence of asbestos in schools is eliminated entirely, many believe it will continue to pose a health hazard to young, susceptible children.