Asbestos Exposure in Schools: Are Students and Teachers Still in Danger?

Asbestos Exposure in Schools: Are Students and Teachers Still in Danger?

Almost 400 people exposed to asbestos in British schools will die of mesothelioma every year, a new report has revealed. Figures from the U.K. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that these deaths have risen by a third.

That makes Britain the world leader in asbestos-related deaths among ex-pupils and teachers. But the U.S. isn’t too far behind.

Another Country ‘Shrouded in Secrecy’

In the U.K., the report found, up to 86 percent of schools contain asbestos.

Perhaps most shocking were the report’s revelations about a BBC investigation, which noted that British schools have no obligation to notify parents of the presence of asbestos in their child’s school. To be clear, U.K. law requires employers to inform employees about (and protect them from) asbestos risks. But schools do not owe that same courtesy to parents, children, or even teachers – only 46 percent of whom know their school is contaminated.

Similarly, though prepared to spend billions on renovating the House of Commons and royal palaces, the U.K. government has not prioritized asbestos removal in schools.

“It has concluded it is cheaper to let people die than remove asbestos,” said Peter Middleman, Regional Secretary of the National Education Union, “but if the problem was not shrouded in secrecy, and if the true extent was widely known, the political pressure to do something would be intense.”

Research shows that a total of 363 British teachers have died from mesothelioma since 2001 – and a total 2,400 Britons continue to die from mesothelioma every year – even though asbestos was banned in the U.K. in 1999.

In the U.S., 1 of few industrialized nations that has yet to ban asbestos, we see upwards of 39,000 asbestos-related deaths a year. Yet the risk affects a considerably larger 15 million students and 1.4 million school staff.

Is Asbestos in U.S. Schools an Issue?

It’s easy to draw the parallels between the 2 countries. For example, the U.S. also deprioritizes asbestos management under Trump’s EPA.

We can also see similarities between teachers and other workers at historically high risk of asbestos exposure. U.S. National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) data show that elementary school teachers, in particular, are more than twice as likely to die from the disease than the general population. Mesothelioma death rates among U.S. teachers are second only to those among construction workers and higher than those of the chemical industry, railroad industry, and others.

The U.S. does, at least, require schools to protect their employees and children from asbestos. The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) requires both public and non-profit private schools to:

  • Inspect their properties for asbestos-containing materials every 3 years
  • Develop and regularly update an asbestos management plan and take action to prevent or reduce asbestos hazards
  • Notify parents, teachers, and employee organizations on the availability of the asbestos management plan and any planned or completed actions

However, “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,” according to the EPA.

That doesn’t address other ways asbestos could be disturbed, including negligent maintenance. Any disturbance of the numerous (and easily accessible) asbestos-containing items in schools – ceiling tiles, vinyl flooring, and wallboard, for example – could put teachers and students at risk.

What Can We Learn from the U.K. School System?

If the U.S. can’t rely on Trump-backed health and safety regulators to safeguard against all asbestos risks, we could follow British education regulators’ example in holding local authorities accountable. The U.K. Department for Education recently launched an Asbestos Management Assurance Process to enforce safe management of asbestos in schools.

But again, “management” doesn’t necessarily mean removal. Experts argue solutions such as these don’t adequately address the problem.

“If you start from a position that asbestos causes cancer in children or children who are exposed to asbestos go on to get cancer in later life, then your starting position needs to be that it’s removed as a priority,” Middleman stressed.

Beyond removing asbestos from American schools, we need to push the political pressure Middleman recommended: the pressure to ban asbestos outright, as Britain did 19 years ago. Reducing hazards in school, residential, and commercial buildings isn’t enough. Even low risks of asbestos are enough to kill.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

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Last modified: August 11, 2020