The Need for Reform – 30th Anniversary of AHERA Marks the Necessity to Eliminate Asbestos in Schools

In 1986, President Ronald Regan signed into law the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), which aims to protect students, teachers, and other members of a school from the dangers of asbestos.

This year – 2016 – marks the 30th anniversary of the Act; however, asbestos still poses a risk in many states to this day, as the act has not been properly addressed and followed. Fortunately, in the past year, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Edward Markey (D-MA) reintroduced the challenge to protect children and communities from toxic chemicals, including asbestos, through the Alan Reinstein and Trevor Schaefer Toxic Chemical Protection Act – hopefully, bringing an end to asbestos exposure through a ban on asbestos.

Never Heard of It: What Is the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act?

Though most products today do not contain asbestos, up until the 1970s, asbestos was still frequently found in many building products – floor tiles, cement sheets, insulation, soundproofing material, pipe wrap, roofing, etc. Thus, many older school buildings, according to Alex Formuzis, Vice President at the Environmental Working Group Action Fund, “…built before 1980 or 1981 almost certainly includes asbestos materials.” Exposure to even a single fiber of asbestos can lead to a number of life-threatening diseases, including mesothelioma. Therefore, protection from the hazardous mineral is necessary in order to protect individuals from the risk of exposure.

AHERA requires both public and non-profit private schools to perform routine inspections of their schools for asbestos-containing building materials and to prepare management plans and take action to prevent or reduce asbestos hazards. In addition, personnel working on asbestos activities in schools must be trained and accredited in accordance with The Asbestos Model Accreditation Plan. Furthermore, if materials containing asbestos are severely damaged or will be disturbed during demolition or renovation, the school must remove the asbestos in compliance with the Asbestos National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP).

The Aftermath of AHERA and Why Asbestos Is Still a Threat

Despite the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) attempt to ban asbestos in 1989, asbestos has not been banned altogether in the U.S. and is still being imported and used in construction. In addition, while AHERA was signed into law 30 years ago, it has far from been followed and has proved ineffective. On March 31, 2015, Senator Markey and Senator Boxer launched an investigation about the management of asbestos hazards in school buildings by sending letters to the governors of each state about their application of AHERA. What they found was disappointing and alarming, to say the least.

Only 20 of the 50 states (or, 40 percent) even responded to the letters. Non-responding states include Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Last year alone, there have been incidents of potential student exposure to asbestos in Orange County, California; Evanston, Illinois; Dearborn, Michigan; and Swampscott, Massachusetts.

What Does Non-Response Imply When It Comes to AHERA?

From the responses that the senators did receive, they came up with 4 main findings:

  1. The scope of asbestos hazards in schools in the U.S. is likely widespread.
  2. States do not appear to be systematically monitoring, investigating, or addressing present asbestos hazards in schools.
  3. States do not report leading regular inspections to detect asbestos hazards.
  4. States do not report keeping record of activities for tracking asbestos hazard information or remediation in schools.

This means that states are failing to realize the dangers of asbestos and asbestos-related diseases, and are unwilling to uphold the procedures of the Act that make an effort to protect children and school staff.

It is possible that many of the more than 53 million children and 6 million adults who spend the majority of their time in school buildings are being exposed to asbestos on a daily basis – increasing their chances of getting an asbestos-related disease. Moreover, some diseases, like mesothelioma, take anywhere from 20 to 50 years to develop or show symptoms – making it difficult to determine how many people are truly being affected by asbestos in schools without states following the regulation provided by AHERA to monitor asbestos.

Advocates for the Ban on Asbestos

While 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of AHERA, it’s evident that asbestos is still a problem in schools and the U.S., in general. Failure for the states to understand and regulate the dangers of asbestos and other toxins poses a risk for children and the rest of the American population to numerous health hazards. Fortunately, there are members of Congress, such as Senator Boxer and Senator Markey, pushing for legislation to change the way the U.S. deals with these issues. By bringing awareness and initiating reform, there is potential and hope for eliminating the risk of asbestos in the U.S. once and for all.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

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Last modified: September 28, 2020