Impossible as it sounds, this headline is correct. While the one place you would have thought your kids would have been safe was school, this is unfortunately not the case. If you were wondering what this relates to, it surrounds increasing worry about their exposure to lethal asbestos fibers, as asbestos-containing building materials are found in schools across the United States. Teachers and others working in schools are at equal risk.
The scale of the problem
Although the Environmental Protection Agency may have outlawed the use of asbestos in 1989, many of the schools our children attend were built before this. The widespread use of asbestos-containing materials in the twenty years from 1950, which is the time when about half of America’s schools were constructed, means that there is a high chance that schools in your neighborhood will have the deadly substance present within its walls. Your children might therefore be one of the 55 million children thought to be exposed to asbestos across the United States; alternatively, you could be one of the 7 million teachers in the same situation.
Once asbestos is in place, in its intact form it poses little risk, but it is the fibers that are released which are so damaging. Asbestos materials are most likely to be damaged during maintenance or improvement to buildings, but even just a small amount of work in an area that contains them can cause fiber disturbance.
When these fibers are inhaled, they remain in the lungs and cause cell changes, which over time can lead to the development of an incurable form of cancer known as mesothelioma; equally coming into contact with asbestos is linked to a type of lung cancer similar to that seen in smokers. Even if you do not develop cancer, these fibers can lead to inflammation and thickening of the walls of the lungs, known as asbestosis; shortness of breath is a common symptom and in advanced cases, respiratory failure can occur.
Daily asbestos exposure in schools
The likelihood of the development of asbestosis and mesothelioma depends on a number of factors, but the most important are the concentration of asbestos fibers and how long you were exposed to them for. A one off exposure to a small amount is far less likely to trigger problems than coming into contact with it on a day in day out basis.
As it can take 30 to 40 years for symptoms to develop, adults who are only now receiving a diagnosis of an asbestos-related disease may have become victims as a result of attending schools, on a daily basis during childhood, which contained the material. This is an especially likely cause in those who are puzzled by their diagnosis, unaware that they have ever worked with the substance; homes, especially those constructed between the 1950s and 1970s, are another potential source.
A risky occupation
While you would expect it to be largely industrial and factory workers for who asbestos poses a hazard, its presence in school buildings places teachers amongst those occupations at high risk of developing diseases associated asbestos exposure. Figures released by the National Center for Health Statistics show that a shocking 2.1% of elementary teachers die from mesothelioma.
Minimizing the risk
Following a survey of asbestos in schools in the US in the early 1980s, which highlighted the extent of its presence, the 1986 Asbestos Hazard Emergency Act was passed in order to protect students, teachers and other school staff. This mandated every school to carry out an analysis of whether asbestos containing-materials were present in their buildings and to implement measures that reduce the likelihood of fiber release. It was not considered necessary to remove these materials unless they were substantially damaged or were likely to be during proposed building work.
Owing to the continued presence of asbestos, steps taken to reduce the associated risks do just that; they don’t eliminate the problem. As a result, millions more children and teachers are placed in situations each day that could potentially lead to the development of mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease.
Jenny is currently a student but hopes to be an investigative journalist after she finished her English degree.