National Healthy School Day: Are our school buildings “healthy”?
Written by: Michael Shepard
National Healthy School Day was created as a way to call attention to the many health issues facing America’s student population. While much attention is understandably given to the people and activities going on in our schools, we should not forget to examine the health of the buildings themselves. When we drop our kids off at school in the morning, or walk the halls on our way to a school concert, play or game, how often do we notice the building? We notice the colorful signs and posters that alert us to the activities going on, but we seldom take notice of the building itself, and with good reason. Schools are typically drab, uninteresting buildings, brought to life by their inhabitants and purpose, rather than their architecture or design. But what if the building itself posed a health risk? What if the school wasn’t “healthy”?
Asbestos was used in thousands of building products through the 1970s, and in a significant amount of products in the 1980s. Those asbestos products were used in the construction of offices, stores, homes—and schools. Any school built in the 1970s and earlier was likely constructed with at least some products that contained asbestos. Asbestos was used in joint compound, floor and ceiling tiles, insulation, gaskets, packing, fireproofing spray and other building products. Shepard Law has represented construction workers who were exposed to asbestos during construction of schools, as well as custodians who were exposed while buffing vinyl asbestos flooring and maintaining equipment in boiler rooms. But do those potential exposures still exist in our schools today? The answer might surprise you.
In 1986, Congress passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA). Among other things, AHERA required schools to investigate their buildings for the presence of asbestos, document its location, and remediate any asbestos that had the potential to become airborne or respirable. Largely due to AHERA, asbestos materials have been abated from most school buildings. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there anymore. Abatement can take many forms, from complete removal to encapsulation. Encapsulation involves sealing the asbestos in place, so that it cannot be disturbed and made airborne, preventing the dangerous fibers from being inhaled by anyone in the building. Although encapsulation solves the immediate problem, the root of the problem is still lurking behind the walls, above the ceiling grid, or under foot.
The so-called “next wave of asbestos exposure” is this asbestos that lurks in buildings that were constructed during the heyday of asbestos products use. Experts predict that the mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer cases we see in the next 20-40 years will be caused largely by asbestos that is currently hidden in office towers, factories, industrial buildings, homes and schools. When those buildings are renovated or torn down, there is the risk of asbestos exposures unless care is taken to properly remove and dispose of the asbestos.
Despite the efforts to identify and abate asbestos in schools over the past thirty years, there are still instances where asbestos is unexpectedly encountered and released. For example, in 2013, a group of students renovating a room at The Buckeye Education School, as part of a school project, unwittingly tore up asbestos-containing flooring. See the article here.
Luckily, stories like this one are the exception, not the rule. Most schools are perfectly safe for everyday use by teachers, students and administrators. But until a school is completely stripped of all asbestos materials, careful attention must be paid to renovation and repair work. Hopefully this will ensure that the next wave of mesothelioma does not include our most precious resource—our children.