The maintenance staff at Coos Bay School District was just finishing some routine work around the Harding School building before classes were scheduled to begin. Unfortunately, the District was notified that one of the maintenance employees had accidentally caused asbestos fibers to become airborne. Many school buildings contain some amount of asbestos, which is why teachers and renovation workers are still considered to be high-risk occupations for asbestos exposure.
Why Do School Buildings Contain Asbestos?
Asbestos was once used in many products, especially construction materials, due to its strength and fire-resistance. Some of the common materials that could contain asbestos in schools include:
- Cement pipes
- Pipe covering and insulation
- Ceiling, wall and floor tiles
- Boiler insulation
- And others
Asbestos in schools could become airborne if any of the above materials are broken, sanded, crushed or cut. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened at Harding School in Coos Bay. A maintenance employee was sanding a wax layer that was covering asbestos tiles but went too deep and hit the original tiles with the sander. According to a press release from the District, a total of six employees were potentially exposed to the airborne fibers.
Regulating Asbestos in Schools
Schools that were built prior to 1970, typically contain asbestos. However, this was before the general public became aware of its deadly effects. If the fibers of asbestos are inhaled, it can lead to asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer, or other cancers. These health hazards were recognized by Congress with 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 and private schools to inspect their buildings for the presence of asbestos.
Repairing Asbestos vs. Removing Asbestos
While AHERA provides guidance and action plans for handling asbestos, federal regulations do not necessarily require removal of asbestos. For example, if a school’s asbestos-containing thermal insulation is damaged, the local education agency is only required to repair the damaged area. The damaged insulation will only be removed if the repair is not feasible for some reason. In the current situation at Coos Bay, the future course of action for the exposed asbestos tiles is still unknown. However, the District has already followed AHERA regulations by hiring a group trained professionals to analyze air quality and safety in the school. This group has already released a statement claiming the area is “safe from contaminants and ready for human occupancy.”
AHERA regulations also grant citizens the right to request information about asbestos in school districts. As a parent, it is perfectly acceptable to ask if asbestos is present in your child’s school and what the future plans are to remove it.