Asbestos Testing and Management in Schools: Asbestos fibers can cause serious health problems. If inhaled, they can disrupt the normal functioning of the lungs. Three specific diseases asbestosis, lung cancer, and another cancer known as mesothelioma – have been linked to asbestos exposure.
These diseases do not develop immediately after inhalation of asbestos fibers; it may be 20 years or more before symptoms appear. In general, as with cigarette smoking, the more asbestos fibers a person inhales, the greater the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease.
The most severe health problems from asbestos exposure have been experienced by some workers who held jobs in industries such as shipbuilding, where they were exposed to very high levels of asbestos in the air. These employees worked directly with asbestos materials on a regular basis as a part of their jobs.
Much uncertainty surrounds the ‘Ask from exposure to low levels of asbestos fibers. Nevertheless, the risk of school children being exposed to even low levels of asbestos is a concern.
Acting on this concern, Congress passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) in 1986 to protect school children and school employees from exposure to asbestos in school buildings. This blog post describes key parts of these new federal asbestos requirements for schools (Asbestos testing and management in schools).
What Exactly is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a mineral found in certain types of rock formations. When mined and processed, it takes the form of very small fibers which are usually invisible to the naked eye. A typical asbestos fiber is 1,200 times smaller than a strand of human hair.
These individual fibers are generally mixed with a material which binds them together so that can be used in many different products. Because the fibers are so small and light, they can remain in the air for many hours if they are released from asbestos-containing material.
This increases the chance that someone will inhale them. Asbestos became a popular commercial product because it is strong, won’t burn, resists corrosion and insulates well. Its commercial use in the United States began in the early 1900s when it was used as insulation in steam engines.
Since then asbestos has been used to create about 3,000 insulation, fireproofing and other products. The peak years of asbestos use in schools were from World War II until the 1970s, when several major kinds of asbestos materials were banned because of growing concern about related health effects.
Where Is Asbestos Likely to Be Found?
EPA estimates that there are asbestos-containing materials in most of the nation’s approximately 107,000 primary and secondary schools. Asbestos is most commonly used in schools as insulation and in building materials.
It has also been used in floor and ceiling tile, cement pipe, corrugated paper pipe wrap, acoustical and decorative insulation, pipe and boiler insulation, and spray-applied fireproofing. The fluffy white substance you may find above a dropped ceiling, for example, is one type of spray applied material.
The amount of asbestos in these products varies widely, from 1 to 100 percent, depending on the use. Pipe end boiler insulation typically contains more asbestos than other building materials.
The precise amount of asbestos in a product cannot always be determined from labels since most products used in the past were not labeled or by asking the manufacturer. Instead, positive identification of asbestos requires analysis of samples by a qualified laboratory.
When Is Asbestos a Problem?
Intact and undisturbed asbestos materials generally do not pose a health risk. Asbestos materials, however, can become hazardous when, due to damage or deterioration over time, they release fibers. If the fibers are inhaled, they can lead to health problems.
The potential for an asbestos-containing material to release fibers depends primarily on its condition. If the material, when dry, can be crumbled by hand pressured condition known as “friable” it is more likely to release fibers, particularly when damaged.
The fluffy spray-applied asbestos fireproofing material is generally considered “friable.” Pipe and boiler insulation materials can also be “friable,” but they continued on often are enclosed in a protective casing which prevents fiber re-lease unless the casing is damaged.
Some materials which are considered “nonfriable, such as vinyl asbestos floor tile, can also release fibers when sanded, sawed or otherwise disturbed. Materials such as asbestos cement pipe can release asbestos fibers if they are broken or crushed when buildings are demolished, renovated or repaired.
What Has the Government Done about Asbestos Testing?
The federal government has been regulating asbestos for a number of years. Any material which contains as little as 1 percent asbestos is subject to federal asbestos regulations. Progress is being made to limit the uses of asbestos and to identify substitute materials. EPA is now considering ways to phase out the use of the asbestos materials.
On October 22, 1986, President Reagan signed AHERA into law. The Act required EPA to develop regulations creating a comprehensive framework for dealing with asbestos in public and nonprofit private elementary and secondary schools.
The regulations were published on October 30, 1987. The AHERA schools rule requires all public school districts and private schools, known as local education agencies or LEAs, to inspect all school buildings for both friable and nonfriable asbestos; to develop plans to manage asbestos in schools, and to carry out the plans in a timely fashion.
The rule also provides an opportunity for parents, teachers, and other school employees to become familiar with and involved in their school’s asbestos management program. School officials are required to notify parent, teacher and employee groups about asbestos-related activities.
EPA also has established asbestos in the schools’ assistance program. Through its Headquarters office in Washington, D.C., and ten Regional offices, EPA provides direct technical assistance to help thousands of school officials and workers understand asbestos issues.
EPA makes funds available to train asbestos professionals, to assist states in developing asbestos programs, and to help schools comply with the federal asbestos regulations.
Since 1985, EPA also has provided loans and grants to help financially needy public and private schools correct serious asbestos hazards through the Asbestos SchoolHazard Abatement Act(ASHAA) program. Finally, EPA publishes informational pamphlets for the public.
What Are the Proper Methods for Managing Asbestos?
Most asbestos-containing material can be properly managed where it is. In fact, asbestos that is managed properly and maintained in good condition appears to pose relatively little risk to students and school employees.
Accordingly, the AHERA schools rule rarely requires the removal of asbestos materials. Proper asbestos management begins with a comprehensive inspection by qualified, trained and experienced inspectors, accredited through an EPA or state-approved training course.
Inspecting the condition of asbestos materials initially with AHERA-accredited inspectors and at least semi-annually with trained custodial or maintenance staff is extremely important so that changes in the material’s condition, such as damage or deterioration, can be detected and corrected before the condition worsens.
Sometimes normal school maintenance activities can damage asbestos material and cause fiber release, particularly if the material is “friable”. A thorough initial inspection and regular surveillance can prevent accidental exposure to high levels of asbestos fibers.
The methods, in AHERA terminology, are asbestos “response actions.” The last three methods of response actions encapsulation, enclosure, and removal and sometimes the second method repair must be done by accredited asbestos professionals.
The final response action, asbestos removal, is generally necessary only when the material damage is extensive and severe, and other actions will not control fiber release.
Although the AHERA schools rule does not prohibit schools from removing any asbestos materials, removal decisions should not be made lightly.
An ill-conceived or poorly conducted removal can actually increase rather than eliminate risk. Consequently, all school removal projects must be designed, supervised, and conducted by accredited professionals and should be performed in accordance with state-of-the-art procedures.
In addition, schools may wish to hire an experienced and qualified project monitor to oversee the asbestos contractor’s work to make sure the removal is conducted safely.
Only an AHERN-accredited management planner an asbestos professional with proper training, qualifications, and experience is authorized to advise school officials on which response action is appropriate for a particular situation.
The final selection of the proper method is up to school officials after they receive the advice of the school’s accredited management planner.
What Should My School & School District Be Doing?
Under the new AHERA schools rule, each local education agency (LEA, which means a school district or private school)must take the following asbestos-related actions:
- Designate and train a person to oversee asbestos-related activities in the school system.
- Inspect every school building for “friable” and “nonfriable” asbestos-containing building materials.
- Prepare a management plan for managing asbestos and controlling exposure in each school.
- Consult with accredited inspection and management professionals to identify and carry out whatever asbestos actions are necessary and appropriate to protect the health and the environment. These actions or methods must be documented in the management plan.
- Notify the public about the asbestos inspection and the availability of the asbestos management plan for review.
- Use only properly accredited persons to conduct inspections, to develop the asbestos management plan, and to carry out the appropriate response actions.
- Keep records of all asbestos-related activities in the plan and make them available for public review.
Note: Content of this post is extracted from a pamphlet published in 1989, developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in conjunction with the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and the National Education Association (NEA), can help parents and teachers answer questions and learn the facts about asbestos in schools. It also outlines the responsibilities of school boards and other school officials to protect school children and employees from possible exposure to asbestos.