It’s still too soon to judge how post-pandemic life in America will be different, if at all. While the rollout of new COVID-19 vaccines promises to gradually slow the rate of new infections, it’s not clear to what degree the changes seen in 2020 will actually stick.
Millions of Americans are now working from home — a trend that employers may find difficult to reverse. Likewise, millions of students are also being schooled at home. Restaurants, transit services, movie theaters, and a range of other industries have been devastated by low demand and may never fully recover.
And of course, more than 300,000 Americans have perished from a disease that, even with a massive vaccination effort, may not fully disappear for years to come.
Given such a dramatic sea change in the way the world functions, it would seem a better time than ever to seriously rethink our priorities. Life may never go back to the way it was before the pandemic and, in some ways, that may actually be a good thing.
Philadelphia: An Ominous Preview
In 2019, mere months before the first COVID-19 cases appeared in the United States, nearly a dozen school closings in Philadelphia forced students out of the classroom and into temporary facilities and online learning environments.
But it wasn’t some novel virus spreading among the student body that forced the closings. It was a lifeless dust — a naturally occurring mineral found in millions of schools throughout the country — a once-favored building material that, with each passing year, grows more and more dangerous.
Buried within talk about our nation’s crumbling infrastructure is the legacy of asbestos, which for over a century was used as a fire retardant, insulator, and binding agent. It was used so often that by the 1990s, most buildings in the country contained asbestos.
Trouble was, the companies that mined, imported, and sold asbestos were harboring a dark secret, one that is well-known today: that asbestos was extremely deadly when inhaled. Breathing in or ingesting asbestos in an airborne form is the only known cause of mesothelioma, which is one of the most deadly cancers on Earth. Asbestos can also cause a host of other respiratory problems and illnesses.
While many industries have phased out asbestos, it remains lurking in many homes, schools, offices, and facilities throughout the country. The problem is even more stark in the public-private divide.
More than 50% of all public schools in the U.S. were built before 1980, and the older a building is, the more likely it contains asbestos. As those buildings age, the chance of asbestos fibers getting loose, or becoming “friable,” increases dramatically. Moreover, poorly funded urban school systems are disproportionately more in need of repairs than those in more affluent communities.
This creates a sort of feedback loop, where poor public schools or housing lack the funding to remove asbestos from buildings and premises. The more they lack the funding, the more they have to delay addressing the problem, and the more likely there is to be an asbestos incident.
That’s what happened in Philadelphia, where from late 2019 to early 2020 at least 11 public schools were forced to close their doors after the discovery of loose asbestos fibers.
The degree to which students, teachers, and families in that city were thrown off-kilter, forced into a new work or learning environment — all while concerns of exposure to a deadly substance loomed in their minds — was an ominous preview of the year to come with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Asbestos Blame Game
Times of crisis tend to reveal both the best and worst in ourselves. It’s for that reason we should view this new reality as an opportunity to finally address the problem of asbestos. For too long, our elected officials have seen little cause to enforce existing asbestos laws and regulations — let alone pass an outright ban on the substance.
In 1986, Congress passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA). The law requires educational authorities to inspect their schools for asbestos-containing materials, as well as provide management plans and perform any necessary abatement procedures.
Would it surprise you to learn that authorities have proved less than enthusiastic to follow through with that law?
In 2018, a report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed that, from 2011 to 2015, the EPA conducted just 13% of the AHERA inspections it was responsible for.
In Philadelphia, where such reckless inaction revealed itself through such serious consequences, it’s tempting to blame the city school board for failing to take up the issue.
While school officials do share some of the blame, the fact remains that many school districts are woefully underfunded, and they are routinely forced to make lose-lose decisions about how to allocate what little funds they do have.
Had the EPA performed more of the inspections it was required to complete under the laws of AHERA, the situation might never have reached the point where schools were forced to close and innocent students and faculty were exposed to a deadly carcinogen.
Becoming the Change You Want to See
To the extent that COVID-19 has forced the rest of the country to experience some of what Philadelphia schools have endured, there is yet another opportunity. Remote work and learning environments have leapt into the future, allowing teachers and workers to perform some of the tasks they once performed in-person.
While few people would advocate for a completely remote workforce or student body, the fact that it can be done shows what is possible.
Said another way, has there ever been a better time for aging public schools to deal with their asbestos problems? With so many empty schools, asbestos abatement should be viewed as a top priority, regardless of available funding.
Maybe of greater importance would be to finally ban asbestos once and for all. Rather than opening the country’s ports to asbestos shipments, as the Trump administration has done, the government should work to rid the country of this lethal substance.
Before the pandemic, two former EPA administrators published an op-ed in The New York Times calling for a complete ban on asbestos, which more than 60 other developed countries have already enacted. The World Health Organization (WHO), meanwhile, has advocated for a complete prohibition on asbestos in all forms.
The science is clear. The political will is available. The special interests who want to keep asbestos legal are on their back foot. And with new political leadership, a new perspective, and an open future, it seems the time is right to take bolder steps in the right direction.
Support our schools. Ban asbestos.