There’s a hidden threat in 33% of American schools — a toxin lying dormant in the walls, pipes, and insulation of thousands of classrooms. If damaged it can billow into the air, eventually finding its way into the lungs of students, teachers, and faculty. This toxin’s presence in the body will not be evident at first — there will be no initial illness, coughing fits, or other warning signs. Often it will not make itself known for years, possibly even decades — and at that point it may be too late.
This threat is asbestos, and it can be found in tens of thousands of public and private schools across the U.S. While asbestos may seem like a threat from the past, reports of asbestos contamination and possible exposure continue to pop up at a disturbing rate.
Our School Buildings Are Riddled With Cancer-Causing Asbestos
In December 2019, a high school in Philadelphia was temporarily closed due to an “imminent hazard involving damage to asbestos-containing pipe insulation.” That school’s closure comes in addition to the 3 other schools in Philadelphia alone that have been forced to close because of an asbestos threat.
Within the past year, schools in Massachusetts, Oregon, Maryland, Michigan, Kansas, and Louisiana have all suffered closures or delays due to the unanticipated release of asbestos. Whether or not students or faculty at any of those facilities were exposed may not be known for years to come.
And that’s just 2019. These sorts of closings and possible exposures happen all the time and show no signs of going away. Why? Because compared with other institutions, schools suffer greater risks of asbestos exposure with fewer resources to fight it.
‘In Our Soils, In Our Air’
The fight against asbestos has always been a matter of “one step forward, two steps back.” This is especially true in the U.S., where the substance unfortunately remains mostly legal for industrial use.
In an editorial last month, the Philadelphia Tribune argued for the state of Pennsylvania to allocate funding for asbestos abatement and remediation projects. In October, 2 former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrators published an op-ed in The New York Times calling for a complete ban on asbestos, which more than 60 other countries have done.
Senators Edward Markey (D-MA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) have issued a report assessing the sorry state of asbestos in American schools. That study found most states do not have any clear or consistent methods for monitoring asbestos in schools, nor do they conduct regular inspections, which become increasingly important as buildings age.
As schools remain unprepared for the constant threat of asbestos, the World Health Organization (WHO) has urged the complete prohibition of the substance in all forms.
Meanwhile, there has been a concerted effort on behalf of the global asbestos industry to rehabilitate the naturally occurring mineral’s reputation. For its part, the White House has moved to relax asbestos regulations, excluding the naturally occurring mineral along with several other toxic chemicals from public safety reviews.
Asbestos is still used in car parts, fertilizers, chlorine, and some potting soils, and its use in construction materials and insulation dates back to the 19th century. At its peak, the U.S. imported 803,000 tons of asbestos in 1973, according to Quartz. All this suggests that asbestos, even if banned tomorrow, will remain a threat for many years to come.
America’s Aging Infrastructure
The threat to schools remains unique for a few reasons. Asbestos is effective as a fireproof material, which, starting in the 19th century, led to its inclusion in a diverse range of products and building materials. Moreover, it’s cheap.
Through bricks, concrete coatings, pipe insulation, drywall, flooring, and roofing, asbestos eventually found its way into hundreds of thousands of buildings — so many, in fact, that it is near impossible for authorities to keep track.
One EPA estimate from 1985 put the figure at 20% of all buildings in the U.S. (In the U.K., that figure is much higher, with half of all buildings in the country expected to have asbestos as of 2011.)
Asbestos in Schools
But why schools? If asbestos was so popular for its fire-retardant qualities, wouldn’t the threat be more evenly distributed across public and private buildings? Not so. It’s precisely because asbestos is cheap to buy and expensive to abate that public institutions suffer a disproportionately larger threat.
More than half of all public schools in the U.S. were built before 1980, and buildings are far more likely to contain asbestos if they were constructed before then. That simple statistic provides a general reason for why the threat of asbestos seems so focused on public schools. Simply put, because asbestos is so versatile — and for most of the 20th century, unregulated — it is next to impossible to track when, where, and how it was used.
For example, the most recent asbestos-related school closure is the Franklin Learning Center in Philadelphia, which is a historic landmark completed in 1908. The older a building is, the higher the likelihood that it contains asbestos. Older buildings require more frequent repairs, so the risk of agitating old asbestos fibers increases dramatically as buildings age.
Abatement vs. Public Funding
No one wants students or teachers to be exposed to asbestos. But limited public resources often convince authorities to postpone abatement procedures, which over time intensifies the risk. Complicating matters is the legal discrepancies between workplaces and schools.
While the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) regulates workplace exposure for many toxins, including asbestos, that oversight is not extended to schools. Instead, the EPA instructs schools to inspect their own buildings and to take any remediation steps that may be necessary. With funding already limited, and with dwindling support at the federal level, schools sometimes face an impossible choice between risking asbestos exposure and keeping their doors open.
Perhaps nowhere has this conflict been on greater display than in the city of Philadelphia. There, officials are learning how complicated this dance between age and public funding can be.
A recent investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer found more than 9,000 environmental problems throughout the district since September 2015. Some of those problems include dangerously high levels of asbestos in classrooms, gyms, and auditoriums, as well as lead paint, mold, and other environmental threats in a city where some 90% of public schools were built before 1978.
Unfortunately, the situation in Philadelphia is not unique.
Students, teachers, and school faculty at hundreds of schools around the country continue to risk asbestos exposure by merely showing up to work, teach, or learn. In recent years, acute exposures have been reported at schools in Chicago, Illinois; Arlington, Virginia; and Huntington Beach, California. In addition, a 2007 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found elementary school teachers were more than twice as likely than typical Americans to die from mesothelioma.
The current EPA does not appear interested in passing more stringent remediation measures. For the time being, it seems, schools — as well as students, parents, and communities — will have to be vigilant in enforcing remediation and safety protocols whenever asbestos may be located.