According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), approximately 15 million students and 1.4 million teachers were at risk of asbestos exposure in 1984. Yet, just last year, the Ocean View school district in California received frightening news when construction workers discovered asbestos in 11 of the district’s school buildings.
Between the 1940s and 1970s, asbestos was commonly found in building materials like floor tiles, shingles and ceiling plaster for fire protection and insulation. While stable, unbroken asbestos does not necessarily pose any health risks, if the material is weakened or damaged, such as in a renovation or demolition project, asbestos may become airborne and can be inhaled or ingested. When this type of exposure occurs, it can lead to the development of mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, abdomen or, in rare cases, the heart. There is no known cure for mesothelioma.
As a result of the asbestos discovery in the California school district in 2014, about 1,700 children were moved and three elementary schools were closed for the remainder of the school year. Although one of the schools plans to reopen at the end of this month, the other two are closed indefinitely until the carcinogen is securely and entirely removed. The costs of the extensive asbestos removal reached $15 million, forcing the school district to take out a loan to help cover the exorbitant expenses.
“Everyone has asbestos, but they don’t want to deal with it,” said Gina Clayton-Tarvin, the Ocean View school board president. “To abate it is absolutely astronomically expensive.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the creation of the 1986 Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act requires both public and private schools to habitually inspect buildings for asbestos and clean any asbestos-related threats in accordance to the EPA and Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) regulations.
Asbestos must be removed by a licensed asbestos abatement professional, and precautions must be taken to protect workers and the public from exposure. The asbestos-containing materials also must be safely disposed of in an area designated to handle hazardous waste.
Despite strides taken to help protect Americans from deadly asbestos, no one knows exactly how many schools still contain asbestos today. Sen. Edward M. Markey (D-Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate subcommittee currently overseeing chemical policy, believes that officials are unable to accurately determine whether schools are complying with the asbestos law, or even if a government agency is still enforcing it.
“If there are gaps in enforcement, legislative or other reforms may be needed to ensure schools are free from this toxic hazard,” Markey said.
In order to increase asbestos abatement in schools, Markey believes the government should help cover the costs. The government’s involvement in asbestos abatement has been called into question by a number of experts hoping to protect U.S. citizens from the harmful effects of the carcinogen.
“We don’t have any indication that the government is doing its job to make sure measures are in place,” said senior analyst Sonya Lunder with the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The EWG Action Fund recently began a public awareness campaign to remind Americans of the dangers of asbestos exposure and the need for government involvement.
Asbestos Nation, the EWG’s new national public education campaign, hopes to bring more attention to the 1986 Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act and why it was created. Each year, up to 15,000 Americans die from asbestos-related illnesses, but EWG believes that more can be done.
“The campaign will strive to not only to raise awareness among the public of the risks of asbestos, but also to push for policies to protect future generations from exposure once and for all,” Heather White, executive director of EWG and EWG Action Fund, said.
“We spray this stuff on because it’s safe,” Clayton-Tarvin stated regarding the U.S.’s past usage of asbestos. “Then they find out it’s not safe. Really, whose responsibility is it? I don’t think it’s the school district. We’re trying to educate kids today. We shouldn’t be responsible for paying for past sins.”