Asbestos in Schools

The EPA, in conjunction with the National Parent Teacher Association and the National Education Association, is issuing a public warning regarding asbestos-containing materials in elementary and secondary schools. The dangers of asbestos are serious and ongoing. Studies have proven that the younger a person is when first exposed to the harmful mineral, the more likely they are to develop asbestos-related problems. The most severe cases of exposure typically occur in occupational environments, such as shipyards where workers are exposed to high levels of airborne asbestos. Asbestos attorneys warn that exposure to the toxic mineral can happen anywhere, particularly in buildings constructed before the mid 1970s.

Asbestos is the generic name for six types of minerals found in certain types of rock formations. The minerals take form of fibers when mined and processed, and are usually mixed with a binding material to be used in numerous products. An asbestos fiber is typically 1,200 times smaller than a piece of human hair, and if it becomes air born, may remain in the air for hours. Inhalation of asbestos causes illnesses such as lung disease, mesothelioma, and asbestosis.

There are asbestos-containing materials in most of the country’s primary, secondary, and charter schools, mostly in insulation and building materials. In 1985 Congress passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) to protect children and workers in schools from exposure. The potential for an asbestos-containing material to release fibers depends primarily on its condition. If the material is friable, it is more likely to release fibers, particularly when damaged.

The AHERA requires all public school districts and private schools to inspect all school buildings for both friable and nonfriable asbestos; to develop plans to manage asbestos in schools; and to carry out the plans in a timely fashion. The Act also provides an opportunity for parents, teachers, and other school employees to become familiar with and involved in their school’s asbestos program. School officials are required to notify parent, teacher, and employee groups about asbestos-related activities.

Proper asbestos managements begins with a comprehensive inspection by qualified, trained and experienced inspectors, accredited through an EPA or state-approved training course. Sometimes normal school or maintenance activities can damage asbestos material and cause fiber release. A thorough initial inspection and regular surveillance can prevent accidental exposure to high levels of asbestos fibers.

Under the AHERA Act, each local education agency must take the following asbestos-related actions:

1. Designate and train a person to oversee asbestos-related activities in the school system.
2. Inspect every school building for friable and nonfriable asbestos-containing building materials.
3. Prepare a management plan for managing asbestos and controlling exposure in each school.
4. Consult with accredited inspection and management professionals to identify and carry out whatever asbestos actions are necessary and appropriate to protect health and the environment. These actions of methods must be documented in the management plan.
5. Notify the public about the asbestos inspection and the availability of the asbestos management plan for review.
6. Use only properly accredited persons to conduct inspections, to develop the asbestos management plan, and to carry out the appropriate response actions.
7. Keep records of all asbestos related activities in the plan and make them available for public review.

As a parent, teacher, student, service worker, or other school employee, the most important thing you can do is make sure your school has prepared an asbestos management plan as required by AHERA. By becoming familiar with this plan, you will know if asbestos materials are in the school, what plans the school has for managing this asbestos, and then these activities are scheduled to occur.

Once you know where asbestos is, use special care to insure that any day-to-day activities, such as repair or maintenance, do not disturb the material. All of us are responsible for making the AHERA Act work to protect the nation’s school children and employees. EPA conducts compliance inspections of a sample of schools each year to make sure they are obeying the law. Since the AHERA Act is intentionally designed to involve parent, teacher, and other school employee organizations, it is important that you work with your school to make sure that its asbestos program is properly conducted. If you suspect that you are a victim of occupational or environmental asbestos exposure, contact an experienced asbestos attorney immediately for a free consultation.