Children in the United States spend nearly seven hours a day, 180 days a year at school and while districts both public and private have many obligations to keep students safe, we want to talk about one intended to safeguard the air they breathe while there.
One of the indoor air quality hazards school districts are required to monitor and manage is asbestos.
What is Asbestos & Why is it Harmful?
Asbestos is the name of a collection of silicate minerals used in many products throughout the 20th Century because of its strength and resistance to heat - we’re talking everything from cement to shingles.
When asbestos is left undisturbed it does not pose a health risk. During renovation or demolition, however, it’s common for old, brittle asbestos products to release tasteless, odorless, microscopic fibers that can remain suspended in the air and enter your lungs when you inhale. Once inhaled, asbestos stays there forever.
Exposure to airborne asbestos can cause serious health issues including asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma, and pleural disease. There is no safe minimum level of exposure to asbestos. It can take 20-40 years for some of these diseases to manifest, so we are currently seeing the results of exposures from the 1980s and 1990s now.
The only way to be sure whether a material contains asbestos is to have it tested by a qualified laboratory.
The EPA & Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act
The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (HERA) was developed in 1986 after Congress acknowledged that because of a lack of federal regulatory guidance about asbestos abatement “some schools have not undertaken response action while many others have undertaken expensive projects without knowing if their action is necessary, adequate, or safe.”
HERA requires school districts - both public and private - to take certain actions related to the maintenance and removal of asbestos containing material in their buildings.
It should be noted that these regulations are founded on the principle of so-called in-place management of asbestos since removal is not usually necessary unless it’s severely damaged or is expected to be disturbed during renovation or demolition activities.
HERA stipulates school districts must:
Perform an original inspection of its school buildings to determine whether asbestos containing material is present.
Conduct reinspections every three years afterward.
Develop, maintain and update an asbestos management plan.
Make available that management plan to the public within five days of being requested, and send annual updates about any abatement actions undertaken and/or planned.
Designate a contact person trained to ensure that the school is meeting its obligations under the act.
Perform periodic surveillance of asbestos-containing materials.
Provide custodial staff with specific asbestos-awareness training.
Ensure that only trained and licensed professionals perform inspections and abatement activity.
Understanding School Asbestos Management Plans
School districts are required to create plans and document recommended asbestos response actions, the location of the asbestos within the school, and actions taken to repair and remove the material.
In addition, districts must maintain these records and include them in their plan:
The name and address of each school building and whether it has asbestos-containing building material, and the type of asbestos-containing material
The date of the original school inspection
The plan for re-inspections
A blueprint identifying the location of remaining asbestos-containing materials in the school
A description of response actions and/or preventive measures taken to reduce asbestos exposure
A copy of the analysis of the building, and the name and address of laboratories that sampled the material
The name, address, and phone number of the designated asbestos contact
A summary of steps taken to inform school stakeholders (parents, employees, students) about inspections, re-inspections, response actions, and periodic surveillance
GASP’s Asbestos Ask
We hope parents, students, and community members stay engaged on important public health issues like indoor air quality in our public and private institutions and seek out information about what YOUR local school district is doing to protect their communities from asbestos exposure.
Please reach out to your local district and request information on their designated asbestos management contact, their management plan, and the required annual disclosures on these issues. When you do, please let us know how it goes - you can email our Program and Education Manager Laura Kuster at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, please share this information with fellow members of your school community so they, too, can stay informed and engaged.
“Letting school administrators and board members know this is important to you helps ensure this crucial public health issue remains on their radar,” GASP Executive Director Patrick Campbell said. “We hope you continue to show up when it comes to indoor air quality and how we can better protect our children and greater school community.”
Editor’s Note: Check out GASP’s Asbestos Awareness page here for more information and resources.