Parents and School Clash over Asbestos Removal

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The Environmental Protection Agency says, when it is performed according to their stringent guidelines, asbestos removal (also called abatement) is safe.  But a group of New Jersey parents is taking no chances with the fiber known to cause mesothelioma.

The parents in Leonia, New Jersey have won a fight with school administrators to delay asbestos removal at their local elementary school.   Like thousands of older school buildings throughout the country, the Anna C. Scott Elementary School in Leonia was built using a number of asbestos-containing building materials, common until the 1980’s.  As long as these materials stay intact and are left in place, the EPA says they don’t pose a health threat to students or teachers.  But when asbestos begins to deteriorate, the dust released can put anyone who is around it regularly at risk for lung cancer, serious pulmonary problems and the rare but highly aggressive cancer, mesothelioma.

School officials in Leonia made the decision to begin removing old asbestos at the school over a weekend, while school was still in session.  Parents found out about the abatement project after the fact and accused the school district of trying to cover up potential safety risks.  The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection determined that the work complied with environmental statutes and that no regulations were violated.  Nevertheless, the district agreed to hold off on removing the remaining asbestos until later in the summer.

Asbestos in schools is a significant health concern.  According to the American Federal of Teachers, teaching carries one of the highest risks of mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer of the organ linings, of any non-industrial profession. In an attempt to protect students and school employees from mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses, the government laid out guidelines for dealing with asbestos in schools in the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) in 1986.  The act is part of the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA).

Under AHERA, schools are required to inspect their buildings for crumbling asbestos every six months and to regularly perform inspections of all asbestos-containing material.  In addition, they must develop an asbestos management plan, which may include spraying the asbestos with sealants, maintaining it properly (such as doing routine maintenance on asbestos floor tiles) or enclosing it.  The asbestos management plan must be on file at the school and must be available to the public.

Since removal is costly and poses the risk of releasing dangerous airborne fibers that could one day cause mesothelioma, the EPA recommends that it be a last resort.  When asbestos removal is necessary, schools are required to notify parents, teachers, employees and the public of their plans.  Only licensed abatement professionals can be hired to remove asbestos from schools and school maintenance staff are required to have asbestos awareness training.

Asbestos abatement is set to resume at the Anna C. Scott Elementary School during the students’ summer break at an additional cost of $150,000 to $200,000, but the school superintendent warns that the project may not be completed by the start of the next school year.

“Frequently Asked Questions about Asbestos in Schools”. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Fabiano, Giovanna. “Leonia school chief holds sessions with parents over asbestos concerns”, May 24, 2010. North
Santiglia, Joanne. “Leonia Parents Learn About School Asbestos Removal Program”, May 25, 2010. NY1 News.

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