Asbestos in public schools poses serious health risks to students. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that most of the country's public schools contain at least some asbestos-containing materials. Asbestos is used in a variety of materials, including insulation, floor and ceiling tiles, cement pipes and spray-applied fireproofing.
"Asbestos fibers can cause serious health problems," the EPA warns. "If inhaled, they can disrupt the normal functioning of the lungs. Three specific diseases - asbestosis, lung cancer and another cancer known as mesothelioma - have been linked to asbestos exposure."
There is a long latency period between asbestos exposure and the development of most serious health problems related to asbestos. This means that it could be decades before a child develops serious health problems from being exposed to asbestos in school. There is no known safe level of asbestos exposure, although the likelihood of developing asbestos-related diseases is linked to the amount of asbestos fibers a person inhales.
Intact and undisturbed building materials generally do not pose a substantial health risk to children. Asbestos can be an issue in older school buildings, however, because damaged or deteriorating building materials can release asbestos fibers into the air. The extremely small size of asbestos fibers means that the fibers can remain in the air for hours after being released.
The potential for the release of asbestos fibers also depends on the condition of the building material in question. Dry materials are generally more likely to release asbestos fibers, especially when damaged. Some asbestos-containing materials such as boilers contain protective coating to prevent the release of fibers, whereas other materials such as asbestos tiles tend to release fibers only when sanded.
Schools are required to minimize the disturbance of asbestos-containing materials during maintenance work. Only specially trained workers are allowed to work with asbestos materials to avoid releasing fibers into the school environment.
"In schools, asbestos-containing materials can also be damaged by student activities," the EPA said in a statement. "For example, an asbestos ceiling in a gym may be disturbed if basketballs or other objects are thrown up against it. Students and others who use the gym should be warned to avoid such activities."
The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act mandates the EPA to work with school districts to identify asbestos-containing materials in our nation's schools and substitute them. Local school officials are required to notify parents and teachers about asbestos-abatement activities and there are regional offices throughout the country to provide technical assistance to school officials working with asbestos-related materials.