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Asbestos in Schools

Asbestos Schools

The mention of the word "asbestos" conjures up pictures of factories, mines, shipyards, and construction sites where exposure to asbestos was once commonplace. This resulted in an abundance of individuals who now suffer from asbestos-related diseases, sometimes 30-40 years after they were exposed to the toxic material.

What many individuals don't realize, however, is exposure to asbestos occurred and continues to occur in myriad other places besides the dank mines and factories of yesteryear, where little regard was given to the health of workers who came in contact with asbestos. Indeed, asbestos is in public buildings throughout the U.S. and other countries, causing harm to those who would never expect that they're being exposed to this toxic material.

Reading, writing, and...asbestos?

One of the most serious problems surrounding asbestos exposure occurs in our nation's schools, particularly those that were built prior to the mid-1970s, when health and environmental officials finally released warnings about the dangers of working and living near asbestos.

Except for communities in which the schools have been very recently built, nearly every small town and large city in America has at least an old school or two where one can find asbestos somewhere within the building. In fact, many of our nation's schools are more than 70-80 years old, built during The Great Depression - the late 1920s to late 1930s - when Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and his newly-formed Works Progress Administration (WPA) allowed those who had been out of work to find employment building schools in cities throughout the country. This was an era when the use of asbestos for insulation was commonplace and no one gave its safety a second thought.

Indeed, according to a landmark 1995 General Accounting Office (GAO) report entitled School Facilities: Condition of America's Schools, more than half of the children in America attend a school with environmental problems, including the presence of asbestos. Though that was a dozen years ago, environmental advocacy groups maintain that little has been done since then to improve the condition of these schools in question.

Schools with particularly poor air quality, caused by the presence of asbestos and other toxins, report that students, faculty, and staff are plagued with respiratory problems and an increased incidence of asthma, headaches, and nervous system problems. And because students often spend more than three-quarters of their school day inside, the problems are compounded.

Fixing the Problem

So why haven't these problems all been fixed? Many have but some school districts continue to cite problems with funding. Proper asbestos removal by a licensed abatement firm can be a costly proposition, especially for inner-city schools that are already struggling, as well as small towns where funds are limited. Though the Environmental Protection Agency has safeguards in place to ensure that asbestos in schools is not causing a hazard, some schools slip through the cracks and others simply take a long time to solve the problem.

Just because a school contains asbestos, however, it doesn't mean that the people inside are being sickened by it. Undisturbed asbestos that is in good condition (not crumbling) will not present a problem. That's why schools must have a good asbestos management plan in place, insuring that the moment the asbestos becomes a concern, something will be done to find a solution before students, faculty, and staff are affected.

  • Committee on Environmental Hazards. Asbestos Exposure in Schools. Pediatrics. 1987 February. Vol. 79 (2), pp. 301-305.
  • Environmental Protection Agency. Asbestos and Vermiculite.
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Waste and Chemical Management, Region 10. AHERA Designated Personís Self-Study Guide: How to Manage Asbestos in School Buildings. 1996 January, pp. 11-12.

Last modified: December 28, 2010.