Why Do Our Nation’s Elementary School Teachers Develop Mesothelioma at a Higher Rate?

Dedicated elementary school teachers work hard to make their classroom a fun and nurturing space. They arrive early to set up and stay late after all the children have gone home to finish projects, hold conferences, attend meetings, and grade papers. They frequently arrange and rearrange desks; they stand on chairs to decorate their classroom walls. These men and women spend more time in the classroom than anyone else. It is a taxing job with many responsibilities and rewards – but is it also a fundamentally dangerous job when it comes to asbestos exposure?

A 2007 Work-Related Lung Disease Surveillance Report conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that – in 1999,

“Occupations associated with significantly elevated mesothelioma mortality include plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters; mechanical engineers; electricians; and elementary school teachers.”

Some of these other professions make a lot of sense, given the heightened risk these types of laborers have for exposure to asbestos – the only known cause of mesothelioma. But elementary school teachers? Why are these men and women included on this list?

The Risk Has Been Known for Decades

Back in 1984, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that approximately 34,800 schools were believed to have friable – or, in other words, easily crumbled – asbestos-containing materials within their walls, ceilings, or floors. Because these materials can be easily become airborne, they are therefore extremely dangerous. At the time, this meant that an estimated 15 million students and 1.4 million school employees were at an increased risk. Since 2007, the U.S. population has only grown, so it begs the question: How many more teachers and students are at risk today?

Although legislation – such as the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986 – was passed soon after these initial findings, it has done little to fix the ongoing issue. In fact, it is somewhat unbelievable to learn that the EPA has not tested schools for asbestos since 1984, nor has it mandated that asbestos be removed from existing structures.

It’s now been almost 30 years since this law was passed. To this day, however, schools are still unexpectedly discovering asbestos during standard renovation and repair projects. This alarming trend has prompted Senator Markey (D-MA) and Senator Boxer (D-CA) to write a letter to each state’s governor asking certain questions about asbestos in our nation’s schools. As Senator Markey put it:

“If there are gaps in enforcement, legislative or other reforms may be needed to ensure schools are free from this toxic hazard.”

An Absence of Funds Means Schools Remain Unsafe

The unfortunate fact-of-the-matter is that schools built before 1980 almost certainly contain asbestos – and schools built before 1980 almost certainly require structural upgrades and repair. Deteriorating walls, ceilings, and floors allow for asbestos to be more easily released into the air – and thus become incredibly dangerous to our nation’s teachers and children. And even when these deteriorating walls and ceilings are addressed, the repair work is not always done safely, and asbestos particles can be released into the air, causing irreversible harm.

What’s worse is that often, this mistaken release of asbestos happens during school hours. It’s only after the discovery of asbestos – and therefore after exposure perhaps has already taken place – that schools are closed and asbestos is properly and safely removed. What’s terrifying is that this chain of events is more commonplace than one might imagine.

What this really comes down to is money. Simply put, many schools just do not have enough funding to preemptively remove existing asbestos. But should it be the responsibility of our nation’s schools to do so in the first place?

Corporations Should Be Held Accountable & We Should Stand up for Our Teachers

Corporations knew of the health dangers associated with the use of asbestos-containing materials and chose to use these materials anyway. Their choice was no doubt related to financial gain.

Teachers work tirelessly to enrich the lives of students and, as a result, the entire community benefits from their efforts. Their profession shouldn’t be inherently dangerous. As this trend – and the historical evidence show – corporate greed has little regard for the health and safety of those who work most to improve and protect our communities.

It’s important to question the safety of the school in your area – and it’s important to know what’s being done to remove or address the presence of any asbestos. This issue will only become more prevalent as additional school buildings begin to need serious repair and renovation.

Although this issue may, at first, seem complicated, it is quite obvious who is to blame. In lending support to teachers, let’s not forget that specific corporate practices have created this health crisis in the first place. Until the issue of corporate greed is remedied, and until certain legislative measures are passed that will hold these corporations accountable, our nation’s teachers and students will continue to go to work and school in buildings that are fundamentally unsafe.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

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Last modified: October 24, 2018