Why U.S. Schools Are Failing to Keep Track of Asbestos

At the McCloskey Middle School in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, workers tore up floor tiles, scraped floors with ice scrapers, and dragged debris through the building. The problem? These tiles contained asbestos, a dangerous mineral that can cause serious and even deadly diseases.

Other Massachusetts schools, like the Gates Intermediate School in Scituate, also had their own track records of asbestos-handling violations. The problem got so bad that these and other schools had to be closed in order to address the problem. Eventually, districts hired point people to oversee asbestos handling in the schools.

When did all of this happen? As a recent Boston Globe story reveals, it actually all happened about 30 years ago, but you could be forgiven for thinking it just happened this past year. That’s because quite a few U.S. schools still don’t have the right safety precautions in place for managing the asbestos still in many old school buildings.

Serious asbestos violations in schools don’t just happen in Massachusetts. They can happen anywhere in the country, and that begs the question: How many schools are struggling to manage asbestos?

It’s easy to see that asbestos is often a concern in school districts. All one needs to do is Google “asbestos” to produce a high volume of search results where schools have been cited for violations. But when you dig further, the entire story around asbestos safety also illustrates how tough it can be to eliminate risks in consumer products without offending the business community, and how the funding of regulators is a big determining factor.

Why Is Asbestos Risk So Prevalent?

Here’s part of the reason that the asbestos problem is so bad in schools: although asbestos is now regulated in the U.S., safety advocates have never been able to implement a full ban of this dangerous substance in commercial products. Efforts at a full ban in the 1990s fell short of banning asbestos in all products, so asbestos is still used in some building materials. That’s really unacceptable to those who believe that no one should have to be exposed to airborne asbestos fibers.

Also, the asbestos regulation that we do have didn’t happen until the 1970s and 1980s, and builders used it prolifically in previous decades. That means older buildings will still have hefty amounts of asbestos in items like pipe wrap, insulation, flooring, and other structural components.

With all of that asbestos in school buildings, it makes sense to try to figure out just how well school districts are handling the issue. But for those who really care about protecting others from dangerous asbestos dust, it seems like in some ways, the hands of regulators and other advocates are tied.

There Are Laws – They’re Just Hard to Enforce

There are laws in place to promote safe handling of asbestos in schools. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for the enforcement of the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, or AHERN, which requires inspections, asbestos-removal plans, and careful handling of asbestos-containing materials by anyone hired to do renovations or demolition inside of the school buildings. However, the EPA simply doesn’t have the money or the staff to fully enforce AHERN across the country. By way of example, federal and state funding for asbestos enforcement in Massachusetts has dropped 20% in the last 6 years. That leaves many school districts to fend for themselves – and to budget accordingly.

There’s also the tricky question of what’s safest for building inhabitants. EPA guidelines for residential asbestos often suggest that encapsulated or hidden asbestos can be safely left in place, because sometimes, removing it is more dangerous than leaving it alone. However, that requires a lot of ongoing responsibility. For those who have to manage properties, questions about cost and responsibility can seem overwhelming.

People in leadership positions don’t always understand the science involved, and may not have access to prominent specialized contractors in their local areas, which means they may not find it easy to get important questions answered. Then there’s the regulation itself, which changes over time. Administrators may be confused about the actual requirements of AHERN, or about exactly which actions need to be taken according to a particular timeline.

With so much confusion over how to deal with asbestos, and such a stigma around the word itself, some of the people in charge of our schools seem to prefer to downplay asbestos issues or sweep them under the rug, rather than putting full safeguards in place. But local leaders owe it to local communities to stay vigilant about asbestos risks, because, due to the way that regulation now works, they are often on the front lines of protection efforts.

When you really look at the problem, you see an outrageous pattern of failure – from the failure to ban asbestos outright, to the failure of federal regulators to exert muscular control, to the failure of individual districts to monitor building work – and all of it comes down to a clear and present danger for ourselves and our children.

Asbestos Cases around the U.S.

Too often, districts leave hundreds or thousands of people vulnerable to asbestos exposure because of budget constraints, or a dismissive attitude toward environmental safety. In other cases, leaders might say they just weren’t aware of legislation or standards. Often, no one steps up to evaluate and regulate renovations until after the fact.

But in other cases, there is a watchful set of eyes alerting the community, and even mitigating potential disaster. In a 2014 case in Huntington Beach, CA, a school board member put a halt to questionable asbestos removal that was going on during school days.

“Our district administration and the contractor decided to do asbestos abatement in the middle of the day, with kids walking around and parents walking around,” said school board member John Briscoe in a Sept. 2014 CBS story; in this case, Briscoe’s warning got the project suspended. “Supposedly all safe, but still it’s certainly tone-deaf and insensitive in my opinion.”

However, sometimes, if the person or people voicing concerns don’t rank high enough, non-compliance wins, as in a recent March 2015 case where OSHA had to step in and penalize an Idaho district for retaliation on whistle-blowing staff.

In individual newspaper reports, online school district archives, and other formal accounts, the list of asbestos problems in American schools goes on and on. There’s a big burden on the EPA and other involved parties to keep school districts accountable for how they may treat asbestos-containing products in school buildings.

Are You Compliant? Legislators Put School Asbestos Issues on the Table

This past March, Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Edward Markey (D-MA), ranking members of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, sent survey letters to the governors of all 50 U.S. states. This letter was an unprecedented step to actually check on schools, as no new legislation has been crafted in the last 20 years to monitor this particular issue. The letter asked governors to:

  • Identify the schools in each district that are subject to EPA laws on asbestos
  • Find out how many of those schools have put together dedicated plans for controlling asbestos in their buildings
  • List how many districts have an “asbestos operations and management (O&M) plan”
  • Determine whether or not the districts are conducting routine inspections of buildings
  • List whether or not officials knew of any past violations that required government action, or if there were any complaints or reports from teachers or other school staff

Early in December, Boxer and Markey put out a report covering the results of their survey. The report, called “Failing the Grade: Asbestos in America’s Schools,” paints a pretty bleak picture of how far we have to go to really get adequate enforcement of EPA rules, and ensure safety for school district buildings:

The scope of asbestos hazards in schools in the United States is likely widespread but remains difficult to ascertain.”

Why did the study’s authors come to this conclusion? Because out of all 50 states, only 20 of them provided responses, and only 16 answered the actual survey questions. This leaves over half of the country without any concrete data regarding their knowledge of asbestos in the schools under their state governance. The study concludes,

“Non-response from 30 states and item non-response or ambiguity from those states that attempted to respond to Senators Markey and Boxer’s inquiry may be indicative that oversight of the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act is insufficient.”

Also, from the collected responses, the study found:

  • 2/3 of the districts in responding states have some asbestos in schools
  • Most responding states did not articulate a plan for inspections
  • Only 41% of districts in responding states developed O&M plans for asbestos handling
  • Only 7.8% of these districts conduct periodic inspections as specified by AHERN

All of these findings represent a pretty dismal reality when it comes to the ongoing issue of asbestos in U.S. schools, suggesting that Americans can’t put their trust in the regulators, the states, or the individual districts to do the right thing themselves. So what options are left? How are people to act to ensure something is done?

It’s largely up to the parents and concerned citizens to call in and request information on asbestos planning to find out whether or not a certain school is safe.

What Can Schools Do Now to Be Better?

When it comes to asbestos in schools, it’s partly the inconsistency that is so maddening. District leaders want to fix the problem – they don’t want to endanger students and staff. But sometimes, that gap between what the law requires and what gets done is frustrating, and districts seem pretty negligent. How can district officials be sure they are on solid ground?

First, districts can simply comply with AHERN. Districts need to have an asbestos-handling plan that lays out the risks and ensures that no renovation effort will involve reckless disruption of asbestos-containing materials – but, and very importantly, they also have to make that plan available to the public.

In addition, schools should have contingency plans, and treat any actual incidents with urgency. In many reported cases of asbestos problems, quick action saved schools from much worse problems – when asbestos is first found and identified, administrators should be able to spring into action to contain the problem.

It’s imperative that schools do air quality tests at appropriate times, such as before and after renovations. Because airborne asbestos fibers are invisible, that is when they are at their most dangerous. Such specialized tests are the only real way to discover risks. Properly timed and carried out, these simple tests can save lives.

Concerned? Put pressure on your local school districts. Call and request a plan that addresses AHERN. Look at school board meeting documents, and ask questions when you see that workers will be dealing with asbestos-containing materials. Talk to district officials about how administrators and board members think about environmental hazards in school buildings. Don’t settle for what other people might think is good enough. Hold your community to a high standard – if we do, we might, once and for all, get rid of asbestos risks in American public schools.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

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Last modified: December 18, 2017