Teachers are at risk of exposure to asbestos in old school buildings. Asbestos is a carcinogenic mineral that can cause mesothelioma, a rare cancer affecting the lining of the lungs, abdomen, and heart.
Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral and the only known cause of mesothelioma. Construction companies valued asbestos for its natural resistance to fire, and used it from the 1900s to the 1980s to build a variety of structures — including schoolhouses. In fact, the majority of schools in existence today were built between 1950 and 1969 to accommodate the rapid growth of the Baby Boomer generation, and all were built with asbestos-containing materials.
How Asbestos Endangers Teachers
Asbestos becomes dangerous when it is disturbed by activities like repairing, removal, or sanding. Its made up of microscopic fibers that are highly friable, which means that it breaks apart and becomes airborne very easily. If you spend a lot of time in an older school building that’s being renovated or repaired, you can inhale large amounts of these tiny fibers, some of which may get caught in the protective lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. These fibers can eventually cause scarring, inflammation, and cellular changes — all of which contribute to the development of mesothelioma.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), however, asbestos doesn’t automatically pose a health risk. The mineral isn’t dangerous when it’s properly installed and contained within other materials. If you’re uncertain whether or not your school contains asbestos, contact the school board, or have a professional who’s trained in asbestos removal inspect the property.
Asbestos Bans and Schools
The EPA attempted to ban asbestos completely with the “Asbestos Ban and Phaseout Act of 1989, but the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned it in 1991. Nevertheless, most companies removed asbestos from their products in the 1980s, when the general public and the U.S. government became aware of the mineral’s carcinogenic properties.
Today, the EPA upholds regulatory requirements to protect children and employees from asbestos exposure. One of these requirements, The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), requires public school districts, non-profit schools, charter schools, and schools affiliated with religious institutions to:
- Inspect their schools for asbestos-containing building material
- Prepare management plans that prevent and reduce asbestos hazards
How to Avoid Asbestos
You can avoid asbestos exposure in older school buildings by learning how to identify asbestos-containing materials, including:
- Vinyl asbestos, asphalt, and rubber floor tiles
- Soundproofing or decorative, spray-on texturing materials like popcorn ceilings and perforated ceiling panels
- Ceiling and wall patching and joint compounds
- Textured paints
If you find one of these products and suspect it may contain asbestos, secure the area, and contact a trained professional. He or she will take a sample of the material, confirm that it contains asbestos, and remove it if necessary.
Safety Tips for Teachers
- Avoid vacuuming dust in a school building suspected of containing asbestos products.
- Stay away from dust, even if you think it’s free of asbestos
- Contact administration as soon as you see any damage or deterioration on school grounds.
- Ask your administrators to schedule air quality — asbestos fibers are invisible to the naked eye.
Symptoms of mesothelioma don’t appear until 10 and 50 years after a person was exposed to asbestos. This makes testing and early detection extremely important. If you suspect you’ve been exposed to asbestos at school or in your workplace, see your doctor and get tested immediately. You can also learn more about mesothelioma, treatment, and asbestos in our free help guide.