Published in the March 2016 NJEA Review
Asbestos, a sharp fibrous mineral, is still present in many school buildings as an ingredient in vinyl floor tiles and sheeting, acoustical and decorative plaster ceilings and walls, insulation on pipes, boilers, and beams, roofing felt and shingles, and many other asbestos-containing materials (ACM). Removal is expensive and risky, so managing asbestos in place is a good option unless it will be disturbed during renovations or demolition.
The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) was passed by Congress in 1986 to force school districts to identify and either remove or manage ACM in public and private school buildings. Such management is not difficult but it does require ongoing and diligent attention and effort by school districts.
Friable ACM can become airborne when disturbed during routine maintenance activities, renovations, removal, or even something as simple as hanging decorations from walls and ceilings. The term “friable” means any ACM that when dry may be crumbled, pulverized, or reduced to powder by hand pressure.
Staff and students who inhale airborne asbestos fibers are at risk for mesothelioma, which is cancer of the lining of the chest and abdominal cavity. They are also at risk for cancers of the lung, esophagus, stomach, and colon. Scarring of the lungs, known as asbestosis, is yet another risk. These diseases usually take several decades to develop and there are no early warning signs such as a cough.
Failing Grade: Asbestos in America’s Schools, a December 2015 report by U.S. Senators Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., concluded that the 30-year-old AHERA law is widely ignored by districts and poorly enforced by state governments. The senators sent letters to the governors of all 50 states, seeking information on the extent of asbestos hazards remaining in schools. New Jersey’s Chris Christie was one of 30 governors who gave no response.
Responses from 20 governors were alarming. States are not systematically monitoring, investigating, or addressing asbestos hazards in schools. They do not conduct regular inspections of local education agencies to detect asbestos hazards and enforce compliance. States do not keep track of asbestos hazard information or remediation activities in schools. Districts are simply trusted to follow AHERA requirements, and have no incentive to do, so since enforcement is virtually nonexistent.
The senators made recommendations to strengthen AHERA oversight through periodic reporting requirements for school districts and additional funding for state enforcement, such as inspections and audits. They also recommended that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) be required to evaluate states’ AHERA programs every 10 years.
Local associations and their health and safety committees should work with their UniServ field representatives to take the following actions to protect staff and students from asbestos exposure:
Adrienne Markowitz holds a Master of Science in Industrial Hygiene from Hunter College, City University of New York. Eileen Senn holds a Master of Science in Occupational Health from Temple University in Philadelphia. They are consultants with the New Jersey Work Environment Council, which is a frequent partner with NJEA on school health and safety concerns.
AHERA regulations require public school districts and nonprofit schools to:
For more information
Failing Grade: Asbestos in America’s Schools, U.S. Senators Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., December 2015, 22 pages.
The ABCs of Asbestos in Schools, EPA, 2003, 14 pages
https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/abcs-asbestos-schools (case sensitive)
Use these updated resources instead of those listed on Page 8 of the above NJEA pamphlet:
AHERA investigation of fiber release episodes
New Jersey Department of Health (DOH)
Environmental and Occupational Health Assessment Program
PEOSH inspections of public school employee asbestos exposure
New Jersey Department of Health (DOH)
Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health
Investigations of unlicensed asbestos abatement contractors, lists of licensed contractors and monitors
New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) Office of
OSHA offices for inspections of asbestos exposure to private and privatized school employees and construction and demolition workers
Avenel, 732-750-3270, Hunterdon, Middlesex, Somerset, Union,
Marlton, 856-596-5200, Southern New Jersey
Parsippany, 973-263-1003, Bergen, Passaic counties
Hasbrouck Heights, 201-288-1700, Essex, Hudson, Morris, Sussex counties
OSHA Asbestos webpage
EPA Asbestos in schools webpage