Despite widespread public perception to the contrary, asbestos contamination remains a serious problem in American schools – throughout the nation’s public school system. In fact, more than one source has referred to the issue as a “ticking time bomb” in regard to our children’s future health and safety. While the problem of lingering asbestos contamination goes well beyond America’s borders (as demonstrated by this Guardian article), the United States does face some particular issues with asbestos contamination in schools – thanks in part to the state of our asbestos restrictions. Already, asbestos-related liability cases make up the longest and most expensive mass tort case in American legal history – and the problem is about to get worse.
But… How is it getting worse? And why? Isn’t asbestos illegal in the US? Why wasn’t it pulled out of our schools, of all places, decades ago? How is it that its effects on the health of our citizens, particularly our children, are actually going to get worse? There are a few different aspects of the overall situation which need to be addressed, by way of offering an explanation. Once you’ve looked at them, however, the level of trouble we’re facing in the coming decades is as obvious as it is frightening.
Where is Asbestos Found?
One of the major issues behind asbestos removal is that, for many years – since the late 1800s, when large-scale asbestos mining first went into effect – asbestos was used in a staggering variety of industrial products. Asbestos is moderately strong, while being relatively inexpensive. More importantly, as far as people were concerned at the time, it offers profound resistance to damage from fire, electricity, and chemical interaction. So, despite the fact that knowledge of health concerns related to asbestos dates back to the time of the ancient Romans, we put it to use. Asbestos was used in building and pipe insulation, wall and ceiling panels, and floor tiles, as well as in a wide variety of other objects and tools which are omnipresent within the construction industry.
Naturally, since one of the major selling points of the stuff is that it can render a building fire-resistant, it was heavily incorporated into schools, hospitals, and industrial centers.
But, wait – all of that asbestos has been removed, right? Not exactly.
Is Asbestos Illegal?
The United States is actually one of the few developed nations on Earth to refrain from banning asbestos completely. It is still used in commercial products today, despite its many known health concerns. A ban was passed in 1989, but was successfully challenged by the asbestos industry in 1991. Many products which are produced today still contain asbestos; for example, automotive brake pads using asbestos were only prohibited by law as of 2014. Meanwhile, OSHA has set specific levels of asbestos exposure for American workers, inside of which the health risks are deemed to be an acceptable occupational hazard.
Surely, though… we’ve removed the asbestos from places like schools, and hospitals?
Lingering Asbestos Contamination in Public Buildings
As it turns out, many public buildings – including schools – still contain asbestos, sometimes in significant quantities. The reason? Primarily, it falls to the financial concerns involved in asbestos removal. The removal of asbestos from a building that is still generally in use – particularly one like a school – requires the use of expensive equipment, invasive procedures, and specially trained and certified personnel. It can be quite expensive, and is often considered to be unnecessary if known asbestos contaminants are actually stable.
Many products containing asbestos are stable and inert. In order for its health-related issues to take effect, a person needs to inhale the individual fibers of the mineral. They have to inhale a significant quantity of them over a drawn-out period of exposure over time – and the fibers need to be of a sufficient size, for some of the more immediate impacts on an individual’s health to be of concern. Because of this, asbestos products such as wall paneling and floor tiling – hard, solid substances which effectively contain the asbestos – are often left in place, despite the knowledge of their presence.
Sometimes, it’s actually judged to be safer to allow them to remain, as efforts to remove them pose a minor risk of lingering contamination during the removal and transport of any asbestos-based materials. Does that mean that, where it remains in place today, asbestos products in old school buildings, hospitals, and other such public-use facilities might actually be considered safe?
Why Inert Asbestos Poses an Increasing Threat
As long as an asbestos-based material remains inert and contained, it isn’t a threat to anybody’s health. The problem, that being said, lies in the fact that few things remain stable and inert forever. The more time that goes by, the greater the likelihood of a given asbestos product – whether known or undiscovered – being subjected to some outside stimulation that could cause it to release stray fibers into the air. Outdated or poorly maintained ventilation systems might offer inadequate filtering capabilities, and can result in an otherwise minor release affecting a large number of people.
The exact nature of what can cause an asbestos release varies widely depending upon the product. For example, the material that was once used to wrap and insulate pipes was loose and fibrous, and contained by what amounted to little more than paper. A simple blow from a heavy or sharp object, deliberate or otherwise, could result in such a material releasing significant asbestos fiber contamination. Harder objects, such as wall paneling, can be affected by slow water damage – as from a tiny, undetected leak within a wall, steadily dripping over a course of years.
Basically, anything that might physically corrode or damage any other building material – over however long a period of time – can have a similar effect upon asbestos, which was valued more for its resiliency to fire than for any exceptional physical durability. With decades having gone by since an increase in public awareness resulted in a decline in its use, the threat posed by old sources of asbestos in our schools is once more becoming a major public health concern.
What Can I Do?
If you are concerned about the possible presence of asbestos in your child’s school, you should speak to a representative of your local school board and request further information. The Environmental Protection Agency also offers additional information about asbestos in schools. For information about how safe, environmentally friendly asbestos remediation services actually work, you may also elect to contact BioRestore at 404-476-8660