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A cafeteria fire in Wanette, Oklahoma, has parents worried about the health and safety of sending their children to the district’s public schools. In March, a fire broke out in a cafeteria and science wing of the school campus that had been shuttered for decades. Although the blaze reportedly injured no students or faculty members, classes have been canceled due to a potential asbestos threat.

Due to the expense of removing this dangerous carcinogen, asbestos and other potentially dangerous materials remained on the public school campus. The recent fire prompted the state’s Department of Environmental Quality to push for closing the entire school facility until cleanup measures could be taken and testing proves students are no longer at risk.

Like too many old buildings, asbestos abatement may have been sidestepped due to the cost and acknowledgment that these building may have already exposed thousands of unsuspecting faculty and children. Shuttering asbestos-tainted structures has become an all-too-common practice that comes back to haunt decision-makers.

When a fire devastates a structure, it can send countless amounts of asbestos particles into the air. Unsuspecting onlookers and community members often have no idea they are being exposed to asbestos. The toxic particles can lodge in the lungs and other internal organs. A deadly cancer can take years to manifest.

Although officials are taking steps to prevent further exposure, in all likelihood teachers and school-aged children may have already been exposed to asbestos during the fire and evacuation. Asbestos tends to be odorless and tasteless when reduced to breathable particles in the atmosphere. An even bigger question looms about how many unsuspecting workers have traveled in and out of the decommissioned building over the years.

The Oklahoma fire highlights the fact that asbestos remains a silent killer in American communities all across the country. It’s imperative that school boards and local governments invest in appropriate asbestos abatement before exposure occurs. As long as asbestos remains in your community, people are at risk.