As U.S. children head back to school after winter break, too many of them will be returning to school buildings that contain asbestos. Unfortunately, it is well documented that aging schools present the risk of asbestos exposure to students, teachers, administrators, janitors and maintenance personnel.
Historically, many of the building and finishing materials used to construct schools could have contained asbestos. When these materials are broken, sanded, crushed or cut during renovation, cleaning or demolition, microscopic fibers released into the air could harm anyone on the premises. When the mineral is breathed in, the seed is planted for the growth of potentially devastating asbestos-related diseases, sometimes decades into the future.
Some of the common materials that could contain asbestos in schools include:
- Cement pipes
- Pipe covering and insulation
- Ceiling, wall and floor tiles
- Joint and patching compounds
- Boiler insulation
- Brakes, clutches and gaskets in mechanical shop classes
- And others
This harm was recognized by Congress by its passage of the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, known as AHERA, in 1986. AHERA and its regulations set out complex requirements for public school districts (subdivisions of state government) and private schools to inspect their buildings for the presence of asbestos, create asbestos management plans, provide relevant employee training and reduce the potential for hazardous exposure. During renovation or demolition, national safety standards must be followed and trained professionals used to perform the work.
Enforcement and oversight of AHERA requirements are delegated to the states with oversight by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or EPA. Twelve states with safety standards equal to or better than those under AHERA have been granted waiver from federal oversight, leaving enforcement and oversight to those state governments.
In 2015, U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D, Cal., surveyed state governments regarding the status of AHERA adherence in their states. The results were dismal, signaling that the protections envisioned in the federal law are largely either not being provided or the status of compliance is unknown.
AHERA grants to citizens the right to request information about asbestos in individual school districts. If you believe that you or your child may have been exposed to asbestos in an educational setting, speak with an attorney.