Asbestos was commonly used in thousands of construction products prior to 1980, and therefore many schools built before that time were constructed with asbestos containing materials. When these materials are intact and in good condition, they do not pose a threat to safety. However, when disturbed or damaged in any way, asbestos fibers can become airborne. The fibers are carcinogenic, and after lodging in the lining of internal organs, can cause fatal illness such as mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer.
Because of the extensive use of materials that contain asbestos in the construction of schools prior to 1980 and the known dangers of exposure to asbestos, the federal government created regulations in the late 1970s. In 1978, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created a document that outlined safety regulations for identification and management of in-place asbestos in schools. Three additional documents have subsequently been published in 1983, 1985, and 1990. The main guiding document regulating asbestos in schools is called the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA).
AHERA requires all schools, private and public, to develop and implement an asbestos management plan. This is also often referred to as in-place asbestos operations and maintenance (O&M) programs. Although complete removal of asbestos products is preferred, sometimes this is not possible and therefore a plan is created and maintained for managing existing asbestos on school sites. The O&M is a program intended to minimize release of asbestos fibers and to reduce exposure and risk to workers, school staff and students, and nearby occupants.
O&M programs must be in place at any school site where there is risk of asbestos becoming “friable.” Friable asbestos “is defined by the Asbestos NESHAP as any material containing more than one percent (1%) asbestos …that, when dry, can be crumbled, pulverized or reduced to powder by hand pressure. Management programs are then created by the school district in accordance with regulations that outline safety practices for maintaining asbestos containing products to prevent them from becoming friable as well as managing them during installation, repair, maintenance, demolition, or cleaning activities. Success of these programs, however, is in the implementation and commitment of a district to follow guidelines.
If you are a parent or employee of a school district and concerned about exposure to asbestos or the presence of materials that contain asbestos, you have the right to ask to review the school management plan and receive notification of assessments and evaluations.