Here’s What Teachers Need to Know About Asbestos

pile of books and apples and scissors and chalk

Recent events have dragged Philadelphia’s aging schools into the spotlight. Like hundreds of schools across the nation, the schools were built before the government outlawed most asbestos materials. Now, as those materials break down, they release asbestos fibers into the air, and those fibers led to at least one teacher’s cancer diagnosis.

As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, that teacher worked for nearly three decades in Philadelphia’s school districts and tried every day to make her classroom a bright and safe spot for her students. But the steps she took to decorate her room may have inadvertently contributed to her disease. What surprised her most, she said, was that her school never said anything about the possible dangers.

The dangers of asbestos in schools

As we hear more news about asbestos in schools, you might wonder why the schools aren’t doing more about it. It’s a fair response, especially since the government has known about the risks of asbestos for decades. But as the Inquirer’s report makes clear, Philadelphia’s response has often been late, quiet and incomplete. The teacher’s school had been flagged for toxic asbestos levels, and her classroom had been singled out for repair at least three times. Still, the teacher didn’t know.

Sadly, the problem isn’t unique to Philadelphia. Schools throughout the nation have asbestos fireproofing sprayed onto their ceilings, layered on the walls and stuffed into insulation that’s wrapped around their pipes. The EPA claims there’s no problem so long as the materials remain intact, but when they start to break down, they can release fibers into the air. As a result, the EPA has guidelines for asbestos in schools, and schools must:

  • Perform inspections of asbestos-containing materials every three years
  • Keep an updated asbestos management plan at the school
  • Inform parents, teachers and employees about the asbestos plan and related activities
  • Give appropriate training to their custodial staff

Despite these guidelines, the Philadelphia teacher claimed she never heard a word about asbestos, despite having her inbox flooded by countless other details and mandates. Instead, she kept adjusting the artwork she hung between two insulated pipes, never knowing that she was freeing fibers into the air that could kill her.

How Safe Are Your Schools?

Teachers and parents deserve safe schools. They also deserve to know if their schools are complying with EPA standards. In fact, the EPA states that parents, teachers and school employees “have the right to inspect the school’s asbestos management plan.” This plan must share the results of each inspection, a map of asbestos in the building and a list of the steps taken to inform everyone of any dangers or related actions.