Asbestos is a known human carcinogen that was used in the construction of tens of thousands of schools in the U.S.  The first question most teachers ask when discussing asbestos is whether it is present in their school.  According to the EPA, “It is very possible that there is asbestos in your child’s school” and “asbestos can be found in various places within schools.”  Unfortunately, most schools built before the 1980’s probably used a number of asbestos containing building materials, including: ceiling tiles, wallboard, flooring, and insulation.

Policy is to Leave Asbestos in Place

The U.S. policy regarding asbestos in schools is to leave it in place. While it is possible that asbestos materials were removed from your school during an abatement process, it is more likely that asbestos is still there and is being “managed in place” within your school.  Is it safe to leave asbestos in place in schools?  According to the EPA, undamaged asbestos that is managed in place poses minimal health risk to students or teachers. But, friable asbestos, or asbestos that is already falling apart and can be broken by hand pressure, is of greatest concern.  Friable asbestos fibers can be easily released into the air and inhaled into the lungs.

Teachers Are At Risk for Mesothelioma

Asbestos exposure can cause asbestosis, lung cancer, and a particularly aggressive cancer called mesothelioma.  Although the dangers of asbestos are now well documented and nearly all western industrialized countries have placed a complete ban on this known carcinogen, such a policy does not exist in the U.S.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report titled “Work-Related Lung Disease Surveillance Report 2002,” occupations associated with significantly elevated mesothelioma mortality in 1999 includes teachers. Mesothelioma is a cancer for which there is no standard cure.

School Inspections and Repairs Required

According to the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) schools are required to have their asbestos containing materials undergo periodic inspections (surveillance every 6 months and re-inspections every 3 years) and prompt repair is required when damaged or friable asbestos is noticed.  Such repairs can include: simply renovating the asbestos containing material, spraying it with sealants, enclosing it, or removing it entirely.

Teachers Can Learn Where Asbestos is Located

In addition to inspections and repairs, AHERA requires schools to prepare management plans which set forth the best way to reduce the dangers from any asbestos in the school.  These plans must be developed by accredited management planners and approved by the State.  The plans also have a number of requirements most notably they must contain a blueprint that clearly identifies the location of asbestos-containing building material that remains in the school.  This is an important requirement and means that the exact locations – classrooms, halls, closets – are known where asbestos containing products exist. In fact, according to the EPA, parents, teachers, and school employees, or their representatives, have the right to inspect the school’s asbestos management plan. Upon request, the school must make the plan available within a reasonable amount of time.

The plans must also contain a description of steps taken to inform workers, teachers, and students or their legal guardians about inspections, re-inspections, response actions, and periodic surveillance.  Therefore, by accessing these plans, teachers should be able to find out in which rooms and classrooms asbestos is present and the nature of the inspections and surveillance.

Testing the Air

Where might teachers see examples of friable asbestos?  According to the EPA it might be seen on ceiling tiles, wallboard, and insulation.  Clearly, if a teacher sees ceiling tiles, wallboards or insulation deteriorating in a school built before 1980 it should be brought to the attention of administration immediately. Of course, depending on this kind of incidental observation is not full-proof.  Asbestos fibers could be released in the air and be difficult to see with the eye alone.  The EPA reminds us that, “the most dangerous asbestos fibers are too small to be visible.”  However, AHERA only requires testing the air where an asbestos repair or removal activity has taken place.  Should proactive periodic monitoring of the air inside schools be performed?  According to the EPA, a school district may hire a qualified consultant to test its air for asbestos at any time.  Therefore, it is incumbent upon a school not only to abide by the required AHERA regulations on asbestos surveillance and re-inspections, but also to monitor the air if it wishes to remain proactive.

Suggested Steps for Teachers

Older schools do present the potential danger of asbestos exposure to students and teachers.  To help minimize the risk of mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases, teachers are encouraged to learn about the AHERA requirements and their school’s asbestos history including any abatement projects and recent inspections; the location of asbestos containing products and building materials within the school; and steps they can take to encourage their school to be proactive such as performing frequent air monitoring for asbestos fibers.