By Megan Boyle, Editorial Director
Across the United States, too many students and teachers continue to be at risk of inhaling harmful asbestos fibers in their schools’ classrooms, cafeterias and hallways.
In the last two years alone, inspections have found hazardous fibers in Pennsylvania, Virginia and California schools. Last month, a report by Asbestos Nation uncovered a widespread problem in Chicago: Nearly 200 of the city’s schools pose significant exposure risks to students and faculty.
Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to talk to your child’s school about asbestos.
1. Know your school’s responsibility
The Environmental Protection Agency holds schools responsible for finding and removing harmful asbestos. Under the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, schools must:
- Inspect their buildings every three years
- Take action to ensure that any asbestos fibers present cannot be released into the air
- Maintain an asbestos management plan
- Designate an asbestos contact person and provide contact information to the public
- Share the plan with anyone who wishes to see it within five days of the request.
2. Ask questions
The surest way to learn about asbestos issues at your child’s school is to ask to see the asbestos management plan. This document will tell you when the school was last inspected, whether the inspectors found asbestos and, if so, what steps are or will be taken to deal with it.
The plan will also include the name and contact information of the designated asbestos contact person, who must be available to answer detailed questions.
EPA regulations require that the process be transparent, so you should feel comfortable about requesting the information.
3. Recognize your school’s financial obligation
Congress passed the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act in 1984 to help schools identify and reduce their asbestos risks. That federal funding dried up in the 1990s, so now schools and school districts must pay for corrective action themselves.
The health of students, teachers and staff should be a school’s top priority, but the lack of financial support puts a burden on many cash-strapped communities. Removing asbestos can soak up critical dollars intended for other educational priorities. It may even cause schools to close.
Schools handle these pressures differently. Yours may need parents to fundraise for key projects, while others may need parent groups to organize and take action, especially if administrators are busy with abatement. Ask teachers and staff how managing asbestos affects their time and resources – and how you can help. They’ll appreciate the offer.
4. Understand the risk
Your child’s school might find asbestos but take no steps to remove it. That may not be a reason to be alarmed.
Asbestos fibers become dangerous only when they are released into the air (during construction, for example) and people inhale them. If your child’s school was built with materials containing asbestos but they are in good condition – described by inspectors as “non-friable” – your school may leave things alone while continuing regular inspections.
However, if your school is failing to take actions called for by the asbestos management plan – or if you feel they’ve missed a potential risk – speak up. Violations are not uncommon. Ask administrators for information and report the situation to the designated asbestos contact person.