School Buildings, Teachers, and Asbestos Exposure
There are many occupations in which exposure to asbestos—and subsequent risk of developing mesothelioma—is a real possibility. Regulations and laws in place since the 1970s have protected many people and lowered the risk of exposure, but older building still contain a lot of asbestos, and that includes school buildings.
Teachers and others who work and spend their days in older school buildings may be at risk of being exposed to asbestos. The federal policy relating to asbestos in schools follows an “in place” management system. This means that while buildings must be inspected or asbestos, the material does not need to be removed. Thousands of schools across the country may still contain asbestos because of this and any disruption of that material could cause exposure and harm to teachers and students alike.
Most Pre-1980s Schools Contain Asbestos
School buildings that were constructed before many of the federal asbestos regulations were put in place are likely to contain asbestos. Before anyone realized just how dangerous asbestos was, and that it was linked to illnesses like mesothelioma, this natural mineral was used extensively in the construction of all kinds of buildings. Asbestos is lightweight but strong, resists heat, fire, and electricity, and is cheap and abundant. It has been used in insulation, dry wall, siding, roofing, ceiling tiles, adhesives, and even in the books and chalkboards that students and teachers used.
Federal Policies and Asbestos in Schools
The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, is responsible for outlining and enforcing federal laws related to asbestos in school buildings. The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) has two requirements for all public, private, and charter schools in the U.S. These include mandatory inspections of buildings for the presence of asbestos and a requirement to create management plans to prevent or reduce the risks of asbestos exposure.
The EPA and AHERA do not require that schools remove the asbestos found on inspections. They only need to plan for in-place management to reduce the risks of exposure. The law states that asbestos does not typically need to be removed. It only needs to be removed from the building when it is seriously damaged or when it is at risk of being disturbed by renovation or demolition. Anyone working on asbestos plans in a school must be trained and accredited.
The Problem with In-Place Management
In-place management of asbestos is not unusual. In many other buildings, old asbestos is kept in place if it can be safely contained. Asbestos only poses a risk to people around it if the fibers break off and become airborne. If the asbestos is contained within a material and is not exposed, it should not pose a risk to anyone. The fibers should remain intact and embedded in the material.
The issue with this type of a plan is that it is not foolproof. Maintenance work, environmental damage such as from an earthquake, renovations, and even vandalism, are all examples of situations that could accidentally damage asbestos-containing materials and expose the particles to the air. If everything is done correctly, maintenance work is done responsibly, and there are no accidents or intentional damage, then asbestos will remain intact. If it does not, though, the particles can become airborne and potentially harm anyone in the building.
Asbestos Exposure in California Schools
Just a few years ago, in 2014, three schools in Huntington Beach, California closed because of asbestos. It began when a school board member filed a complaint to OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, citing potential mishandling of asbestos in the schools. Over the summer the district was working on renovation projects in several buildings and it was discovered that a contractor mishandled the abatement of asbestos-containing, fireproofed ceiling tiles.
Several schools closed, but three were closed or nearly two years to complete renovations, abatement and cleaning. The schools only reopened in 2016 and cost the district $6 million. Both students and teachers were put at risk of being exposed to the asbestos that was still in the school buildings and that was being improperly removed while they were teaching and learning.
Teachers Are at Risk of Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma, the cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, is a rare illness. Those people who are at an increased risk for developing it are typically working in environments that contain asbestos. Construction, shipyard, and industrial workers carry the greatest burden of exposure and illness, but teachers are also at a greater risk of having mesothelioma than the general population.
Examination of statistics shows that teachers are twice as likely to die from mesothelioma as people in the general population. Elementary school teachers are at the greatest risk. The risk for teachers is lower than some of the higher risk groups of workers, like construction workers, but higher than others, including chemical and railroad workers.
Studies that have investigated mesothelioma deaths in teachers ruled out other potential sources of asbestos exposure and concluded that most of the victims were exposed on the job. In some of these cases the researchers actually found damaged asbestos in the buildings where they worked. In one case of a teacher with mesothelioma, the cancer was of the peritoneum in the abdomen, likely because the teacher’s lounge, where they lunched, was in the boiler room. Asbestos insulation was used heavily in and around boilers.
Where Teachers May Still Be Exposed
Teacher and students may be exposed even today to asbestos in older school buildings. The most common sources of exposure are from materials that have been damaged or worn down over time. Damaged drywall, plaster, or wallboard, chipped paint, damaged flooring and ceiling tiles, soundproofing materials, fireproofing materials, and insulation are all potential sources of exposed asbestos that could enter the air and contaminate a school.
Teachers, like other workers exposed to asbestos, have a right to a safe workplace. OSHA sets limits on the amount of asbestos that may be in the air and the EPA has set the regulations for managing asbestos in schools. And yet, teachers are still being exposed and are still getting sick. If you are a teacher and you believe you have been exposed to asbestos, ask your doctor about mesothelioma and related illnesses. The earlier you are screened, the better your chances will be for successful treatment. Contact a mesothelioma lawyer too. You have a right to safety in the workplace and if you have been denied that and became sick as a result, you may be able to recover damages.
Page edited by Dave Foster
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