What’s happening, what to do

By Dorothy Wigmore

For many years, asbestos, the “magic mineral” was used in thousands of products found in homes, workplaces and schools. Starting in the 1920s, studies confirmed suspicions about its hazards. Today, it is a “member” of what the Union of Concerned Scientists calls “40,000 Death Club”—a list of things such as traffic fatalities and gun violence responsible for killing that many Americans.

Despite widespread information about the hazards, asbestos has recently been found in trace amounts in products containing talc, beauty products, children’s make-up, crayons and crime kits.

Until 1972, the fibrous material was used in many building materials in the U.S., including:

  Plaster (boards, ceilings, walls)
  Ceiling and floor tiles
  Zonolite vermiculite insulation
  Insulation for pipes, boilers, beams, ventilation ducts wire covering
  Roofing and siding materials

In good condition, asbestos-containing materials (ACM) won’t harm us. Disturbed—without special controls—by things such as punctures, poorly controlled routine school maintenance, renovations, or removal—tiny fibers get into the air and/or settle as dust. They can be inhaled or ingested, creating a health hazard.

Even small amounts of asbestos are harmful and cause lung diseases and cancers in and beyond the respiratory system, sometimes as long as 40 years later. Mesothelioma, a rare, fatal cancer, is becoming more common, especially among those with less frequent or direct contact with asbestos.

The U.S. has not joined almost 70 other countries that have banned asbestos. Some states have acted. Last May, New Jersey banned the sale or distribution of asbestos-containing products as of September 1, 2019. Any person convicted of a violation of the ban can be fined $2,500 for each offense.

School “emergency response” law in 1986

The federal Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) was passed in 1986, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) responsible for it. The goal was to force school districts to identify ACM sites in their buildings and remove or manage it effectively.

As reiterated in a 2019 compliance advisory, districts must, among other actions:

  Inspect known or suspected ACM every three years (after an initial inspection), unless a school is certified asbestos-free and check its condition every six months.
  Make and maintain a management plan, with regular updates, keeping a copy in each school and the district office.
  Name and train a designated person to implement it.
  At least once a year, tell parent and staff organizations—in writing—about the availability of the plan and anything completed or planned related to it.
  Put warning labels in all routine maintenance areas with ACM.
  Within 60 days of starting work, train maintenance/custodial staff (two hours awareness training plus another 14 hours if their activities will disturb ACM).
  Let short-term workers who may disturb ACM know about the location(s).
  Ensure only trained, licensed individuals conduct inspections and needed removal/fixes.

Legacy asbestos needs attention

Legacy asbestos—what’s still in buildings and products—is a problem in schools built before 1972. Many inspected schools ignore asbestos hazards and AHERA processes by not labelling ACM, not training maintenance/custodial staff or designated persons, and not telling school staff or parents about the plan or its most recent status. When schools fail to tell contractors about the presence of asbestos in requests for renovation and/or maintenance work, the results can be disastrous.

“.. (S)chool boards neither understand facility conditions and leave them alone to deteriorate and definitely don’t understand the impacts on the health, safety, and welfare of children and staff,” Jerry Roseman, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) environmental science director, told  Derrick Z. Jackson of Environmental Health News for an article titled “Asbestos, ubiquitous and avoidable, is a deadly threat to our kids.”

New Jersey isn’t alone. In August, the PFT announced that teacher Lea DiRusso, a 51-year-old mother of two, has mesothelioma after working for 30 years in two buildings with documented asbestos hazards. She would frequently clean “dust” off students’ desk. In February, the union demanded the city school district be declared a disaster area after similar hazards led to closing about 12 schools.

“It’s the result of long-term neglect and under-investment in the facility side,” says Roseman. “Asbestos issues have been “horrifically handled,” including “terrible work practices to deal with damage, especially in highly-accessible, high-contact and high-traffic locations.”

One solution: a crowdsourcing app. The “incredibly powerful tool that’s made an enormous difference” allows staff and parents to report school asbestos conditions to the union. The anonymous reports are vetted using specific criteria and sent to the district.

Others have shared lessons too. The Massachusetts Teachers Association’s former health and safety committee chair, Dr. Charles Levenstein, told a 2013 conference:

  Passing a law doesn’t solve the problem.
  AHERA paperwork requirements are essential, not incidental.
  Only vigilance by staff and parents ensures compliance, and sometimes may not be enough.

What local association healthy and safety committees can do?

• Through NJEA develop checklists—including follow-up needed—for AHERA ruels.
• Develop and work with allies (e.g., parent groups, health and safety/environmental health organizations;) to push districts to obey AHERA, using the adapted app as one form of leverage.
• Request all records related to the required asbestos management plans, comparing them to the rules;
• Use the checklists and recommend follow-up;
• Find “your” designated person, asking about their training (see resources), ask them to show you the asbestos management plan and any operation and management plans that are in place and any activities currently underway; and
• Work with the UniServ rep and local allies to use the adapted app, make complaints, and follow-up;
• Report activities and results to the local and its members.

Who does what about asbestos in NJ schools?

Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization • The New Jersey Department of Health’s (NJDOH) Indoor Environments Program administers AHERA for EPA, trains and certifies asbestos trainers, and provides information.

  The NJDOH’s Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health program (PEOSH) enforces health and safety asbestos regulations.
  Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) staff regulate and investigate issues about transporting and disposing ACM.
  Department of Labor & Workforce Development’s Asbestos Control and Licensing Section licenses contractors, issues permit cards to their supervisors and workers, and checks abatement projects (enforcing the NJ Asbestos Control and Licensing Act and regulations)
  Department of Community Affairs (DCA) Asbestos/Lead Unit enforces the Asbestos Hazard Abatement Sub-Code for education facilities, public buildings, daycare centers and nurseries, where any asbestos abatement work must be monitored and inspected by “asbestos safety technicians” they certify working for a monitoring company that DCA authorizes.

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