Ask the Experts

Hiding in Plain Sight

Universities are discovering asbestos was used in older buildings. What is the danger to students and faculty?

Parents and students are becoming increasingly concerned about the prevalence of asbestos in schools, especially those built before 1980. According to reports, around half of all schools in the U.S. were constructed from 1950 to 1969, when asbestos materials were widespread in building processes. They are right to be concerned, as asbestos can cause a whole range of diseases, as we are about to find out.

To understand why asbestos can be so dangerous to humans, we have to look into some science behind what it actually is. Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral silicate that forms in the earth. Years ago, it was mined like iron or lead, because its fibers are extremely resilient and do not break down or degrade over time. These fibers are also fire and chemical resistant and were added to a wide range of products to strengthen them. Manufacturers developed methods to break the fibers down into microscopic dust for use in various products.

When maintenance work on campus disturbs these materials, or they start to deteriorate over time, the dust from asbestos can enter the air and our lungs. Exposure to asbestos dust puts teachers and students at increased risk for mesothelioma, a deadly lung cancer, and other serious respiratory conditions. Inadvertent inhalation over time can cause asbestosis which is the scarring of the lung tissue. The duration of exposure will determine the severity of the impact on your body.

The figures are quite alarming. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, asbestos still resides in the majority of school and college buildings and premises, posing a risk to millions of teachers, students and staff. Asbestos has been described as a frightening substance. You cannot see it if it falls in front of you and once you inhale it, the fibers get caught in your lungs and there is no way to remove them. It can take several years before you get any signs of respiratory problems.

A list of high-exposure risk occupations generally includes construction workers, miners, and armed forces veterans. Teachers are more likely to be exposed than many other occupations that don’t involve asbestos directly. Some states are worse than others. Texas, for example, has a dismal safety record with construction involving asbestos. In 2014, parents and teachers in Huntington Beach, California were outraged to discover contractors had removed asbestos materials unsafely from a number of district schools earlier that year. Air tests at a local school revealed airborne asbestos levels that exceeded federal safety limits, and the school was closed.

There is no way to tell if a building or material contains asbestos without sending a sample to a lab for a polarized light microscopy test. The correct procedure for students and teachers would be to notify the EPA if they suspect that a deteriorated section of building could be a health risk. A team should be contacted to make an on-site visit to carry out asbestos inspections.

The asbestos problem impacts everyone… John Engler.

Jacob Maslow is the founder and editor of Legal Scoops.