In 1980, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started its ultimately unsuccessful 10-year effort to ban asbestos, one of its first studies declared in no uncertain terms: "The Agency has determined that exposure to asbestos in school buildings poses a significant hazard to public health."
By Bill Walker Thirty Years Later, the Hazard is Still Widespread In 1980, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started its ultimately unsuccessful 10-year effort to ban asbestos, one of its first studies declared in no uncertain terms: “The Agency has determined that exposure to asbestos in school buildings poses a significant hazard to public health.”1 E...
By Bill Walker
Thirty Years Later, the Hazard is Still Widespread
In 1980, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started its ultimately unsuccessful 10-year effort to ban asbestos, one of its first studies declared in no uncertain terms: “The Agency has determined that exposure to asbestos in school buildings poses a significant hazard to public health.”1
EPA followed that risk assessment with a nationwide survey to determine the extent of the danger. Based on a sample of 2,600 public school districts and private schools, EPA estimated that 15 million students and 1.4 million teachers, administrators and other employees – in almost 35,000 schools – were at risk of exposure to deadly airborne asbestos fibers.2
The survey was conducted in January 1984. Incredibly, that appears to be the last time the federal government assessed the risks asbestos poses to students, teachers and staff in American schools.3
On March 31, 2015, Sens. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) wrote to all 50 governors asking for detailed information on asbestos in each state’s schools. They noted that almost 30 years after Congress enacted the 1986 Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act in an effort to protect students, teachers and other employees, “the extent of asbestos hazards remaining in schools across the nation is largely unknown.”4
Asbestos in schools is not only a health threat. It is a financial burden that takes resources from education and a charged subject that can spark panic, anger and mistrust between schools and the communities they serve. The full extent of the problem may be unknown, but it is clearly widespread:
- In October 2014, the Ocean View School District in Orange County, Calif., was forced to close three campuses after test results found asbestos in several classrooms. The district had to deplete its reserve fund to bus students to other schools in the county as construction problems delayed the reopening of the campuses. In a further blow to its budget, alarmed parents pulled more than 150 students out of the small district,.
- In January 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the Idaho Falls School District, charging that the district had fired its environmental health engineer in retaliation for her raising concerns about asbestos removal from boiler pipes at a junior high school. Federal law prohibits firing or discriminating against employees who call attention to asbestos problems.
- In March 2015, a photo from an Akron, Ohio, high school that showed an asbestos-abatement worker in a protective suit inside a classroom near a DANGER sign caused an uproar when it was posted on Twitter. Said one parent: “We don’t know what’s going on in there. We haven’t been told [the facts] by anybody; all we are hearing is from the kids.”
- That same month, a church-run preschool in Arlington, Va., was shut down after volunteers cleaning the building ripped up flooring, releasing asbestos dust into the air. An unidentified tipster told a local news outlet: “Chaos ensued when folks figured out what had happened … and now 100-plus kids don’t have a daycare to go to. Who knows if the church has the money to remediate asbestos.”
- In February 2011, officials temporarily shut down a high school and junior high in St. Louis Park, Minnesota after finding asbestos dust from floor tiles.
- For at least five months in 2010, children who attended Washington Elementary School in Berkeley, California might have been exposed to asbestos.
Another clue to the level of risk of asbestos exposure in schools is the relatively high rate of mesothelioma among teachers. Although the absolute numbers are small – 13 teachers died of mesothelioma in 1999 – the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s “Work-Related Lung Disease Surveillance Report” for 2007, the latest year available, noted that elementary school teachers are more than twice as likely to die from the disease than Americans as a whole.5 Teachers’ death rate from mesothelioma is about half the rate among construction workers, but it’s higher than for workers in some occupations known for elevated rates of exposure, such as the chemical industry and railroads.
Although any building constructed before 1981 is presumed to have asbestos,6 EPA says the presence of asbestos in a school does not automatically indicate a hazard.7 But parents’ concern is understandable. In its 1980 risk assessment, EPA said children may be at greater risk than adults:
The highly active nature of school children and their physical characteristics generate concern that, under similar circumstances, their degree of actual exposure to asbestos may be greater than that of adults. Because children generally are more active than adults, they have a higher breathing rate. They also inhale relatively more often through the mouth than through the nose. Consequently, more fibers would be inhaled and fewer would be trapped by the nasal hairs and mucosa. Young children are shorter than adults and their mouths and noses are closer to the floor. Therefore, they are likely to inhale higher concentrations of dust that is stirred up from the floor.8
In 2013, the U.K.’s Committee on Carcinogenicity, which advises the British government on whether substances are likely to cause cancer, concluded that it is not possible to say if children are inherently more susceptible to diseases caused by asbestos. But it said children have an increased lifetime risk because of the long lag time between exposure and developing mesothelioma – an incurable cancer, almost invariably caused by asbestos, which can take decades to show up. The committee said:
Because of differences in life expectancy, for a given dose of asbestos the lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma is predicted to be about 3.5 times greater for a child first exposed at age 5 compared to an adult first exposed at age 25 and about 5 times greater when compared to an adult first exposed at age 30.9
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, has set a limit on exposure to asbestos on the job – 0.1 airborne fiber per cubic centimeter of indoor air over a typical eight-hour workday, not to exceed 1 fiber per cubic centimeter in any half-hour period.10 OSHA acknowledges that this level “leaves a remaining significant risk” but is the “practical lower limit of feasibility.”
Schools are not covered by the workplace standard. Instead, EPA says each school should be handled on a case-by-case basis to determine the extent of the problem and the best course of action.11 When asbestos is found, EPA says, removing it is not always the safest option. It is usually safer to “manage in place” by covering or sealing off the material, as removal may cause fibers to become airborne.12 EPA’s guidebook for dealing with asbestos in schools says:
[A]sbestos removal is generally necessary only when the material damage is extensive and severe, and other actions will not control fiber release. Although the (asbestos) rule does not prohibit schools from removing asbestos materials, removal decisions should not be made lightly. An ill-conceived or poorly conducted removal can actually increase rather than eliminate risk.13
EPA’s asbestos in schools program focuses on requiring regular inspections and, if asbestos is found, providing advice on how to manage it.
In 1984 Congress passed the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act, which created a program to provide schools with expertise, technical assistance and financial resources to “ascertain the extent of danger to the health of students and staff from asbestos materials in schools.”14 The law authorized up to $600 million in grants and loans to school districts for asbestos abatement, and between 1984 and 1993 Congress appropriated a total of $382 million for the program. No money has been appropriated for the program since then. When the act was reauthorized in 1990, it empowered EPA to make grants to state or local agencies for training school workers in asbestos safety,15 but in April 2015 the agency was unable to provide EWG Action Fund with details on how much money has been granted.
The 1986 Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, or AHERA, established the policies and regulations in place today. It requires all public school districts and private schools to regularly inspect their buildings for asbestos and take appropriate abatement actions.16
Under the act, schools must be inspected every three years. If asbestos is found, management options include repairing damaged asbestos-containing material, spraying it with sealants, enclosing it or otherwise keeping it in good condition so that it does not release fibers. The asbestos management plan is kept by local school administrators and must be made available to parents or the public within five days of a request.17
The EPA is responsible for enforcing the law unless a state applies for a waiver and shows that it can enforce the law at least as stringently.18 According to the agency, 12 states have received waivers to implement and oversee their own regulations for asbestos in schools.19
The March 2015 letter from Sens. Markey and Boxer asked the governors for details on their schools’ compliance with the requirement for regular inspections for asbestos hazards and the results of those inspections. Neither the EPA’s Asbestos in School Buildings website nor those of the 12 states that run their own programs makes inspection reports readily available, but the limited information that has been made public is troubling.
In 2010, through the Freedom of Information Act, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, obtained records of asbestos inspections of schools from the Massachusetts Division of Occupational Safety, which administers the program in that state. The documents showed that from 1998 to 2008, the required routine audits of schools found violations in nine out of every 10 cases. For audits conducted in response to a tip or complaint, about three-fourths found a violation. In no year were more than 27 percent of schools deemed to be in compliance. 20
PEER noted that fewer than 2.5 percent of Massachusetts schools were audited each year. In an enforcement petition to EPA’s regional administrator, the organization wrote: “Given the high rate of noncompliance in the schools that are inspected, it is likely that there are some egregious violations going unnoticed.”21
In most cases, the group said, the violations in Massachusetts were not for risk of exposure but for failing to train school workers in asbestos safety, to notify parents of the availability of the school’s asbestos management plan or to keep required records showing that when asbestos had been disturbed, students and teachers were protected. Most inspections found multiple violations: In the first three months of 2009, the state inspected seven schools and found 71 violations.22
The letter from Rep. Markey and Sen. Boxer asked the governors to provide details of their states’ school asbestos management plans by May 15. It remains to be seen whether their request will draw enough response to provide more solid information. But it is clear that the problem of possible asbestos exposure in schools is widespread, and that schools and school districts lack the expertise and the financial resources to deal with it.
Congress should restore funding to school districts for asbestos abatement and enact a total ban on asbestos. Only a ban will ensure that the problem does not continue to grow.
1 U.S. EPA, Asbestos-Containing Materials in Schools: Health Effects and Magnitude of Exposure. October 1980. Available at http://1.usa.gov/1AhBIQs.
2 U.S. EPA, Fact Sheet: Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986, H.R. 5073. Oct. 23, 1986. Available at www2.epa.gov/aboutepa/signing-asbestos-hazard-emergency-response-act.
3 In 1990, when Congress reauthorized the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act, the legislation said EPA estimated that more than 44,000 school buildings could expose 15 million children and 1.5 million employees to asbestos. In response to queries from EWG Action Fund in March 2015, EPA was unable to say why or how it revised the previous estimate. See: Library of Congress, S. 1893: Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Reauthorization Act (ASHARA) of 1990. Jan. 23, 1990. Available at www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/documents/ashara.pdf.
4 The Markey-Boxer letter is available at http://www.markey.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/2015-03-31-Asbestos-Letter.pdf
5 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Work-Related Lung Disease Surveillance Report 2007, September 2008. Available: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2008-143/pdfs/2008-143a-i.pdf
6 U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Asbestos Fact Sheet, January 2014. Available at https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3507.html
7 U.S. EPA, The ABCs Of Asbestos In Schools. August 2003. Available at www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/documents/abcsfinal.pdf
8 U.S. EPA, Asbestos-Containing Materials in Schools: Health Effects and Magnitude of Exposure. October 1980. Available at http://1.usa.gov/1AhBIQs.
9 Committee on Carcinogenity, Statement on the Relative Vulnerability of Children to Asbestos Compared to Adults. Available at www.gov.uk/government/publications/relative-vulnerability-of-children-to-asbestos-compared-to-adults
11 U.S. EPA, Asbestos Fact Book. February 1985. Available at
12 U.S. EPA, The ABCs Of Asbestos In Schools. August 2003. Available at www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/documents/abcsfinal.pdf
13 U.S. EPA, The ABCs Of Asbestos In Schools. August 2003. Available at www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/documents/abcsfinal.pdf
14 20 U.S.C. § 4011(b)(1).
15 http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/0/59F281A733C80C5285257D73006CDF59. In April 2015, EPA was unable to provide EWG Action Fund with details on the total amounts of such grants.
16 U.S. EPA, Fact Sheet: Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986, H.R. 5073. Oct. 23, 1986. Available at www2.epa.gov/aboutepa/signing-asbestos-hazard-emergency-response-act.
18 40 CFR part 763.98. Available at www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2010-title40-vol30/pdf/CFR-2010-title40-vol30-sec763-98.pdf
19 http://www2.epa.gov/asbestos/state-asbestos-contacts. The 12 states are Connecticut, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas and Utah.
Photo source: NewsNet5 (Cleveland, Oh)