Government Raises Concerns Over State of Asbestos in U.S. Schools

Posted on August 18, 2015

Administrators of public school systems, colleges and universities are sometimes caught scrambling to rid their schools of asbestos once it is uncovered. We have reported on issues in the past in New York, Connecticut and Ohio public schools, and in Texas and New York universities. Now, U.S. Senators are concerned too many schools may soon be faced with asbestos hazards.

Schools, and other buildings, built prior to the 1980s more than likely were built with materials that contain asbestos. And, unless the schools have undergone extensive renovations, they still harbor the asbestos-containing materials. Per the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), established in 1986 to protect teachers, students and all school employees from asbestos exposure, local education agencies are required to inspect for and manage asbestos containing materials. But to what extent that is being done is unclear to U.S. officials.

According to a March 31 press release from U.S. Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the Senators sent a letter to all U.S. governors in an effort to assess the conformance of school systems to AHERA and to determine the extent of the presence of asbestos within the U.S. school system. The letter included a series of questions about the scope of asbestos hazards, awareness and monitoring of hazards, abatement efforts, notification to parents and staff, and reporting to the EPA.

“As implementation of this law approaches the thirty year mark, the extent of asbestos hazards remaining in schools across the nation is largely unknown,” wrote the Senators in the letters. “We think it is an appropriate time to assess how the law is being implemented in each state and whether any legislative or other reforms are needed.”

Following is a sample of questions posed to the governors:

  • How many local education agencies in your state have been identified as having school buildings that harbor asbestos-containing materials?
  • How frequently do local education agencies report AHERA compliance information to the State?
  • Of the local education agencies known to have or have had buildings with asbestos-containing material, how many local education agencies have completed full abatement of the asbestos hazards? By “full abatement” we mean full removal of the asbestos hazards and not management in place through encapsulation, enclosure, or other means.

An Aug. 5 Washington Post article reports all of the governors responded to the letter, but according to a Markey spokesperson, the answers indicated that the federal law was not being followed uniformly.

The Post article reports that as older schools across the U.S. begin to deteriorate, management of asbestos is becoming  a concern. Citing issues at 11 schools in the Orange County, CA school district, when asbestos-containing materials become damaged, the size and scope of construction projects can quickly spiral out of control.

Gina Clayton-Tarvin, president of the Ocean View school board, said, according to the Post, that while the district officials knew that asbestos had been used in some of the schools, when the modernization project was being planned “no one raised the issue of asbestos remediation.”

“Really, whose responsibility is it [asbestos abatement]?” said Clayton-Tarvin. “I don’t think it’s the school district. We’re trying to educate kids today. We shouldn’t be responsible for paying for past sins.”

In an October article, Belluck and Fox reported on the asbestos issues encountered in the Ocean View School District. Huntington Beach parents pulled their children out of school over concerns that they could have been exposed to asbestos during construction projects to update the elementary schools. At the time, Ocean View School District officials estimated they could lose $68,000 each day in lost head count while the schools were closed to remove the asbestos.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asbestos that is in good condition and left undisturbed is unlikely to present a health risk. However, risk of mesothelioma, lung cancer or other asbestos-related diseases becomes an issue when asbestos is damaged or disturbed and asbestos fibers become airborne and are inhaled.

“Everyone has asbestos, but they don’t want to deal with it,” said Clayton-Tarvin.

If you are concerned about asbestos in your child’s school, contact your school administrator. According to the EPA, your local school district/local education agency must nominate a “designated person” to perform and delegate, if necessary, the management of asbestos in a school building. This person should be able to address any specific concerns you have about management of asbestos in your child’s school.