Inspectors Find Widespread Asbestos Risks in Chicago Schools
Note: Students, faculty and staff in Chicago schools may be at risk of exposure to deadly asbestos fibers, according to inspection records analyzed by EWG Action Fund.
Students, faculty and staff in Chicago schools may be at risk of exposure to deadly asbestos fibers, according to inspection records analyzed by EWG Action Fund. Chicago Public Schools records show that in 2013, inspectors contracted by the district found friable asbestos that was damaged or showed the potential for damage in 184 public elementary, middle and high schools th...
Students, faculty and staff in Chicago schools may be at risk of exposure to deadly asbestos fibers, according to inspection records analyzed by EWG Action Fund. Chicago Public Schools records show that in 2013, inspectors contracted by the district found friable asbestos that was damaged or showed the potential for damage in 184 public elementary, middle and high schools throughout the city. Inspectors recommended the asbestos be removed or repaired to alleviate possible exposure risks, but to date, almost all of the identified asbestos remains in place.
“Friable” refers to asbestos that can be easily crumbled by hand or contact, and if damaged could become airborne and inhaled or swallowed. Health officials and scientists agree that inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers can cause cancer or other lung diseases whose symptoms may not show up for decades. There is no safe level of asbestos exposure.
All told, inspectors found asbestos that damaged or had the potential for damage in 1,174 locations throughout Chicago’s schools. In over 600 locations throughout the 184 schools, inspectors recommended that friable asbestos that was damaged or had the potential for damage be repaired or removed. But according to the district’s latest asbestos surveillance update in fall 2015, only 11 schools had complied with the recommendations.
Asbestos-containing materials were found in areas of schools readily accessible to students, faculty and other personnel. Insulation containing chrysotile, the most commonly used form of asbestos, was detected in school corridors, restrooms, storage areas and boiler rooms in several schools. Inspectors also found asbestos in classrooms, teachers’ lounges and auditoriums. For example:
- In Helen M. Hefferan Elementary School in the Westfield Park neighborhood, floor tiles in some classrooms contained friable asbestos-containing material considered “damaged or significantly damaged.” Inspectors recommended removal of the tiles. As of fall 2015, the tiles were still in place.
- In Northwest Middle School near Hanson Park, inspectors found damaged or significantly damaged pipe insulation throughout the building and recommended repairs. As of fall 2015, the damaged insulation was not repaired.
- In Lincoln Park High School, inspectors found damaged or significantly damaged asbestos insulation throughout the school. They recommended removal. As of fall 2015, the asbestos insulation remained
From the 2015 update, EWG Action Fund mapped the prevalence of damaged or potentially damaged friable asbestos in Chicago’s public schools inspectors recommended for removal or repair. On this interactive map, each marker represents a school with friable asbestos inspectors categorized as “damaged, significantly damaged or having the potential for damage or significant damage,” or in need of removal or repair.
Clicking on a school reveals the locations in the building still housing friable, damaged asbestos.
Friable asbestos fibers can quickly become airborne from a touch of the hands or feet, not to mention the wear and tear resulting from students running, jumping, throwing balls or dropping heavy objects. Regular maintenance can also dislodge friable asbestos.
If inhaled or swallowed, asbestos fibers can cause lung cancer; mesothelioma, a rare and incurable malignancy that attacks the lining of organs and is only caused by asbestos; or asbestosis, an excruciatingly painful scarring of the lungs that can be fatal. Symptoms of these diseases often fail to show up for decades after exposure.
Although many Americans believe asbestos was banned more than 30 years ago, many uses are still legal – and still lethal. Each year, an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Americans die as a result of asbestos exposure. Those figures have remained more or less constant even as the amount of asbestos used by U.S. industry in the has dropped significantly.
Chicago schools are not alone. All schools built before 1980 likely contain asbestos. As a result, asbestos exposure incidents continue to plague schools nationwide.
- In October 2014, 1,600 students in the Ocean View School District in Huntington Beach, Calif., were forced to relocate after asbestos fibers were found in three schools. The students were dispersed to eight schools in four other districts, costing Ocean View $50,000 a week to bus the children to the temporary locations.
- In March 2015, tests found asbestos dust in air samples at a church-run preschool in Arlington, Va., causing the school to be shut down indefinitely.
- In July 2015, inspectors found exposed asbestos in piping throughout hallways in Philadelphia’s Francis Scott Key Elementary School.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the presence of asbestos in a school does not automatically indicate a hazard. But in a 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.”
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.
Congress has made steps over the years to address the problem of asbestos in schools, with little long-term success. In 1986, Congress passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), requiring school districts to inspect buildings for asbestos every three years, monitor and manage existing asbestos, and take appropriate actions to abate existing asbestos, if necessary.
However, schools are often left footing the bill for asbestos removal, and asbestos abatement is costly. The 1984 Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act authorized up to $600 million in grants and loans for asbestos abatement in schools. Between 1984 and 1993, Congress appropriated a total of $382 million for school asbestos management. No money has been appropriated for the program since then.
In August 2015, U.S. Senators Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) sent letters to the governors of all 50 states asking for detailed information about asbestos in each state’s schools. Only 20 states responded to the inquiry, and even fewer answered the survey in its entirety. Illinois was one of the 30 states that did not respond.
The senators’ report says that more than two-thirds of responding districts contain schools that have been identified as harboring asbestos. Of the 3,690 districts where asbestos has been found, only 288 have been inspected regularly.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) has authored legislation that would go a long way to provide Americans with more information about asbestos in their communities. The Reducing Exposure to Asbestos Database (READ) Act (S. 700) would require companies that manufacture, import or handle asbestos to report that information annually to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They would be obligated to disclose whether any of these products were in publicly accessible locations over the previous year. The reports would be available in a public online database.
The ongoing problem of asbestos in schools in Chicago and nationwide is not likely to be resolved soon. Until there is increased openness around the presence of asbestos in schools and additional accountability and support for school districts to take the necessary steps for abatement, America’s students, teachers and school staff will remain at risk.
EWG Action Fund is a 501(c)(4) organization that is a separate sister organization of the Environmental Working Group. The mission of EWG Action Fund is to protect health and the environment by educating the public and lobbying on a wide range of environmental issues. Donations to EWG Action Fund are not tax-deductible.