Asbestos in Schools
School buildings constructed before 1980 may contain asbestos in virtually all building components from the rooftops to the floors. School districts across the United States have failed to take meaningful action to mitigate asbestos hazards in schools. As a result, children and personnel face heightened risks of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses later in life.
Asbestos exposure in schools is so prevalent that elementary school teachers are more than twice as likely as the general public to develop mesothelioma. Students face the same exposures as teachers, and a 2015 survey by Senators Markey and Boxer revealed that the asbestos problem is widespread.
More than two-thirds of the responding education agencies reported having schools that harbor asbestos. Although the construction industry largely stopped using asbestos in building products by 1980, most of the nation’s schools were constructed prior to this time.
Who is at risk of asbestos exposure in schools?
Everyone who attends classes or works in or near a public or private school building may be exposed to asbestos. This includes public schools, charter schools, private schools, parochial schools, colleges, and preschools. This may impact the following individuals:
The American Cancer Society reports that the risk of developing mesothelioma is highest for people who experience heavy asbestos exposure over an extended period at an early age. Students may be exposed for 13 years, from kindergarten through 12th grade, and this could continue in college.
What happens if children are exposed to
Children who are exposed to asbestos face the same risks as exposed adults, including an increased risk of developing mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis later in life. According to a comprehensive 1980 support document by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), children may experience higher exposures to asbestos in schools due to their physical characteristics.
Children are more active than adults, and they breathe faster, which means they inhale more often. Floor tiles and flooring adhesives are common sources of asbestos exposure in schools. Children’s noses and mouths are closer to the floor, and this may subject them to higher concentrations of asbestos fibers.
Increased Lifetime Risk of Mesothelioma
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry notes that no studies have proven that children are more susceptible to asbestos-related diseases because of child development. However, asbestos-related illnesses have a latency period of 10 to 40 years or longer. Since children have longer lifespans following exposure, their lifetime risks are higher.
The average age at diagnosis of mesothelioma is 72. However, most mesothelioma cases occur as a result of occupational asbestos exposure during adulthood. An Australian study revealed that some people exposed to asbestos as children were diagnosed with mesothelioma at the age of 40 or younger.
The Committee on Carcinogenicity in the United Kingdom has quantified this increased risk. According to its findings, a child first exposed to asbestos at age five is about 3.5 times as likely to develop mesothelioma as someone first exposed at age 25 and approximately five times as likely as someone exposed at age 30.
According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, people diagnosed with mesothelioma have a five-year survival rate of just 18 percent. This rate is lower if the cancer has spread. Age is one of the important factors in determining life expectancy after diagnosis. People diagnosed at younger ages often live longer.
How does asbestos exposure happen in schools?
Asbestos exposure occurs when asbestos fibers are disturbed and released into the environment. Most asbestos is known as non-friable, which means it is encased in a substance that prevents the fibers from entering the environment.
Non-friable asbestos may be released through the destruction of asbestos material through wear or when the material is cut, drilled, or punctured. Non-friable asbestos may be found in the following building components in older schools:
Friable asbestos is a form of asbestos that can be easily disturbed and released into the environment by merely touching it. This type of asbestos was most commonly used in spray-on applications in building insulation, boilers, and fireproofing applications. Non-friable asbestos that has been damaged may become friable.
Students and staff are most often exposed to asbestos at school when asbestos fibers on building components become airborne as a result of being disturbed. Asbestos in plumbing pipes may enter the water supply, resulting in asbestos being ingested.
Recent Examples of Asbestos Exposure at School
Asbestos is often discovered in public schools only after severe exposures have occurred.
Philadelphia Area Schools
An inspection completed during the 2015-16 school year in Philadelphia revealed that 80 percent of the schools in Philadelphia contained damaged asbestos. However, efforts to abate asbestos were not undertaken until the 2019-20 school year, when $12 million was allocated to the abatement effort, according to a report by the state Democratic Policy Committee.
Advocacy organizations in Philadelphia demanded that the governor declare a state of emergency and release funding to assist with abatement efforts, according to NBC Philadelphia. Several schools in Pennsylvania have closed, some permanently.
The Center for Health Journalism reported that one school in Philadelphia had significant asbestos in the surface dust in three areas tested, including areas where children play and kick up dust and a closet where they store their backpacks and school lunches.
NBC Philadelphia also reported that the superintendent of the Scranton School District, along with two other officials, faced felony child endangerment charges in connection with concealing the presence of asbestos in school classrooms, restrooms, and a cafeteria.
Asbestos in Schools Throughout the United States
Pennsylvania school districts are not alone. School districts across the nation are experiencing similar crises.
Ocean View School District
In 2014, asbestos was found in three schools in the Ocean View School District in California, disrupting the lives of approximately 1,600 students, who had to be dispersed to eight other schools.
The University of California at Davis
The Environmental Working Group also reported that employees and students at the University of California at Davis repeatedly punctured walls known to contain asbestos while installing audio-video equipment. This was done at the direction of their supervisors without precautions.
The Hayward Unified School District
According to The Pioneer, in 2015, all 34 schools in the Hayward Unified School District in California were found to contain asbestos in the following components:
- Vinyl floor tiles
- Pipe wraps
More than 92,000 square feet of floor tiles contained asbestos, and more than half of these were damaged. These tiles were found in nearly 50 classrooms, art rooms, music rooms, and offices.
Eastmont Middle School
In 2023, students at Eastmont Middle School in Utah were forced to transition to remote learning as a result of asbestos discovered in the adhesive under the floor tiles, according to KUTV News.
Disparate Impacts on Disadvantaged Communities
According to the Brookings Institute, school buildings in economically disadvantaged areas are older and under-resourced. One such area is Detroit, where 82 percent of students are black. School buildings in Detroit have an average age of 60 years, which means they almost certainly contain asbestos.
Underfunded schools are more likely to have damaged asbestos and less likely to have the necessary funding for asbestos abatement.
When was asbestos banned in schools?
Asbestos has yet to be officially banned in the United States. However, most schools stopped using asbestos-containing building materials by 1980. Most schools were built before 1980, and these schools likely harbor asbestos. Existing asbestos in school buildings is managed in place rather than removed unless it is damaged.
Why hasn’t asbestos been removed from schools?
According to the EPA, “Asbestos that is in good condition and left undisturbed is unlikely to present a health risk.” Asbestos removal in schools is a hazardous process. The asbestos can become disturbed during removal, resulting in significant quantities of asbestos fibers being released into the air. It should only be attempted by licensed, trained asbestos abatement professionals.
Asbestos abatement is a time-consuming, expensive process that is often disruptive to education. The EPA only recommends removing asbestos when testing reveals that the asbestos is friable. Otherwise, the EPA recommends managing it in place.
Asbestos Regulations for Schools
Asbestos is extensively regulated through state and federal laws. The asbestos regulations that directly impact schools are:
- The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA)
- The Asbestos National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (Asbestos NESHAP)
The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act
How can I find out if my child’s school has been inspected for asbestos?
Asbestos management plans must identify the location of asbestos-containing materials in the respective schools, along with a description of actions the school has taken to mitigate or prevent asbestos hazards.
Parents, teachers, and school personnel have the right to view a school’s management plan. Your child’s school is required to provide an annual notice that the management plan is available and provide it within five days after you request a copy.
The Asbestos NESHAP
The Asbestos NESHAP requires commercial building owners, including schools, to test for asbestos before renovations and demolitions can be completed. If asbestos is present, building owners must notify the designated agency in their respective states and localities before the renovation or demolition can begin.
The Asbestos NESHAP also requires sites to adhere to professional standards in the removal of asbestos-containing materials by using the following safety precautions:
- Wetting asbestos-containing materials
- Sealing the material in leak-proof containers
- Disposing of the material expediently and in accordance with best disposal practices
These measures ensure asbestos is not released into the environment during renovations and demolitions. Asbestos removal in schools should only be completed by licensed asbestos abatement professionals.
Are schools complying with asbestos regulations?
The EPA has the authority to enforce AHERA, but it leaves enforcement to the states. When Senators Markey and Boxer completed their nationwide asbestos survey in 2015, they only received responses from 20 states. These responses resulted in the following findings:
The scope of asbestos hazards in schools is likely widespread but difficult to quantify, and asbestos is not fully abated in most of the nation’s schools.
The states are not monitoring, investigating, or addressing asbestos hazards in schools.
The states are not completing regular compliance audits.
States are not maintaining records, reporting asbestos hazard information, or requiring schools to report asbestos data.
In essence, these findings reveal that there are virtually no consequences for schools that fail to comply with AHERA.
What should I do if my child or I have been exposed to asbestos at school?
It is important to note that not everyone who is exposed to asbestos contracts a related illness. There is no way to predict whether an individual will contract such an illness.
Although there is no way to eliminate the risk after exposure, the American Cancer Society suggests taking the following steps to protect your health after asbestos exposure:
- If you smoke, try to stop. Smoking after asbestos exposure drastically increases your risk of developing lung cancer.
- Talk to your doctor about obtaining regular health screenings for early signs of asbestos-related illnesses for you or your child. It may be helpful to work with a doctor with experience treating asbestos-related illnesses.
- Report persistent coughs or respiratory symptoms to your doctor right away, and make your doctor aware of your history of asbestos exposure.
- Consider getting vaccinated against the flu, pneumonia, and COVID-19.
- If your child has been exposed to asbestos at school, educate your child about the risks of developing asbestos-related illnesses. Inform your pediatrician and ensure this is documented on your child’s medical records.
Can I file a lawsuit for asbestos exposure in schools?
You may be entitled to file a mesothelioma lawsuit against the school district where you or your child experienced asbestos exposure if you have developed an asbestos-related illness. Exposure to asbestos without a related illness is not sufficient grounds to file a lawsuit.
If you have been diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness as a result of asbestos exposure in a school, you will need an attorney to help you file a claim for compensation. The Lanier Law Firm is an experienced mesothelioma law firm with a proven track record.
We provide free case reviews. Contact us today to schedule your free consultation.