No one knows how many schools contain asbestos. What we do know is that between the 1940s and late 1970s, asbestos was used heavily in schools built in the U.S. We also know that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated in 1984 that 15 million students and 1.4 million teachers and school personnel were at risk of exposure to airborne asbestos. The estimate was based on a sampling of 2,600 public and private schools. Per the Washington Post, “two years later, Congress passed legislation requiring public and private schools to regularly inspect their buildings for asbestos, clean up any hazards, and publicly report their actions.” Asbestos has since been banned in all new construction.
If a school was built before 1980, it likely contains asbestos. The EPA says, “asbestos that is in good condition and left undisturbed is unlikely to present a health risk. The risks from asbestos occur when it is damaged or disturbed where asbestos fibers become airborne and can be inhaled. Managing asbestos in place and maintaining it in good repair is often the best approach.” Sadly, too many of America’s public, charter, and religious affiliated institutions are in disrepair, so asbestos exposure remains a threat.
Asbestos fibers could be released into the air when asbestos-containing materials have deteriorated from simple normal wear or if they break or crumble during renovations, a fire, or natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods. Schools that have been around for decades have likely experienced many of these events, but because asbestos abatement comes at an astronomical cost, for many cash-strapped schools fixing the problem could take years. Fortunately, fixing the problem is now the law.
Under the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), public school districts and non-profit schools are required to inspect their schools for asbestos-containing building material, prepare management plans, and take action to prevent or reduce asbestos hazards. Per the EPA, “these legal requirements are founded on the principle of "in-place" management of asbestos-containing material. Removal of these materials is not usually necessary unless the material is severely damaged or will be disturbed by a building demolition or renovation project.”
If removal of asbestos during renovation is warranted, or school buildings will be demolished, public school districts and non-profit schools must comply with the Asbestos National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP). Performing work in accordance with the Asbestos NESHAP “helps to ensure that areas in use during the renovation are not contaminated and that the area under renovation, when it is complete, is also free of contamination.”
It is important to note that state and local agencies “may have more stringent standards than those required by the Federal government.”
How Schools Comply with the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA)
The AHERA regulations require public school districts and non-profit schools to:
- Perform an original inspection to determine whether asbestos-containing materials are present and then re-inspect asbestos-containing material in each school every three years
- Develop, maintain, and update an asbestos management plan and keep a copy at the school
- Provide yearly notification to parent, teacher, and employee organizations on the availability of the school's asbestos management plan and any asbestos-related actions taken or planned in the school
- Designate a contact person to ensure the responsibilities of the public school district or the non-profit school are properly implemented
- Perform periodic surveillance of known or suspected asbestos-containing building material
- Ensure that trained and licensed professionals perform inspections and take response actions
- Provide custodial staff with asbestos-awareness training
As a parent, teacher, school employee or their representative, you have a right to inspect the school’s required Asbestos Management Plan. By law, the Plan must be made available once per year, and within five days of it being requested. Among other things, the Plan must include:
- Name and address of each school building and whether the building has asbestos-containing building material, and the type of asbestos-containing material
- Date of the original school inspection
- Plan for re-inspections
- Blueprint that clearly identifies the location of asbestos-containing building materials that remains in the school
- Description of any response action or preventive measures taken to reduce asbestos exposure
- Copy of the analysis of any building, and the name and address of any laboratory that sampled the material
- Name, address, and telephone number of the “designated person” or contact to ensure the duties of the school district or non-profit private school are carried out
- Description of steps taken to inform workers, teachers, and students or their legal guardians about inspections, re-inspections, response actions, and periodic surveillance
Per the EPA, “these plans are required to document the recommended asbestos response actions, the location of the asbestos within the school, and any action taken to repair and remove the material.”
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"Asbestos and School Buildings." EPA. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 19 Dec. 2016. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
"Asbestos in the Home: A Homeowner's Guide." EPA. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 05 May 2011. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
Layton, Lyndsey. "Authorities Worry That Many U.S. Schools Could Have Dangerous Asbestos." The Washington Post. WP Company, 05 Aug. 2015. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.