Attending elementary, high school, college or a university should not give someone cancer. Yet many school buildings across the United States contain asbestos – a cancer-causing mineral. Due to its natural fire-resistant properties, asbestos was widely used for construction projects before it was regulated in the U.S. This includes the construction of tens of thousands of school buildings.
Today, countless students and teachers are at risk of developing harmful and deadly diseases from exposure to asbestos, including a terminal type of cancer known as mesothelioma. Yet many schools have done nothing to protect their students and employees from asbestos exposure. If you or a loved one has developed an illness due to asbestos at a school or university, you may be entitled to financial compensation.
What Are the Risks Associated With Asbestos Exposure in Schools and Universities?
Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring minerals that are confirmed to be carcinogenic, meaning they cause cancer in humans. In 1987, the International Agency for Research on Cancer published a study that identified all six types of asbestos as having the potential to cause cancer and other negative health effects.
Asbestos can cause health issues after being inhaled or ingested by someone at school. Asbestos fibers can become lodged in the inner tissues of the body, causing irritation, inflammation and a buildup of scar tissue over time. This can then result in cancerous tumors or other health problems, such as a buildup of fluid in the lungs. It can take many years for exposure to asbestos to result in cancer; the average latency period is 20-60+ years.
Asbestos has been linked to illnesses and diseases such as:
- Lung cancer
- Cancer in other parts of the body
- Pleural plaques
- Pleural effusion
Mesothelioma is a deadly type of cancer with no known cure. It is cancer of the mesothelial tissues, or the protective lining that surrounds the lungs and other organs. The National Cancer Institute states that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Being exposed to asbestos even once could result in an illness or disease. However, evidence suggests that regular exposure to asbestos (such as attending a school that contains asbestos) is more likely to result in health problems.
Do Schools Have Asbestos in Them?
Yes. Asbestos has been confirmed to exist in many schools across the country. This includes elementary schools, high schools, colleges, universities, private schools, charter schools and public schools. Any school that was built prior to 1987, at a time when the carcinogenic properties of asbestos were still unknown and unconfirmed, most likely contains asbestos.
In 1984, the Environmental Protection Agency conducted a study based on a sample of 2,600 public school districts and private schools in the United States. The study concluded that almost 35,000 schools are likely to contain asbestos – putting an estimated 15 million students and 1.4 million teachers at risk of harmful asbestos exposure. This study means that approximately 27 percent of all schools in the country contain asbestos. Shockingly, this appears to be the last time that the federal government conducted a study of how many schools have asbestos.
How Was Asbestos Used in Schools?
Asbestos is mainly found in the walls and foundational elements of school buildings. The construction of many public buildings, including schools and universities, from the early 1940s until the 1980s relied on asbestos-containing materials for effective and inexpensive heat resistance and flame retardance.
Some of the most common products and building materials that contained asbestos are:
- Adhesives and glues
- Boiler coverings
- Ceiling spray
- Ceiling tiles
- Cement and mortar
- Floor tiles
- Joint compounds
- Patching compounds
- Pipe insulation
- “Popcorn” ceiling
- Roofing materials
- Textured paints
- Vinyl flooring
Asbestos was mainly used as an ingredient in building materials and consumer goods that needed to be fireproofed. It may exist in the walls, floors and ceilings of schools today. Over time, asbestos-containing materials in schools may crumble, deteriorate, or be disturbed during a construction or renovation project. This can emit microscopic asbestos fibers and particles into the air and put students and staff members at risk of harmful exposure.
When Did Asbestos Stop Being Used in Schools?
Asbestos was no longer used in the construction of schools and other public buildings in the United States starting in 1989. This was when the Environmental Protection Agency issued a final rule that banned almost all asbestos-containing products in the U.S. This included most construction and building products. From this date on, schools and other newly constructed buildings lawfully could not contain asbestos products.
Federal Asbestos Regulations
In 1976, the federal government passed the Toxic Substances Control Act. This provided the EPA with the authority to regulate and restrict asbestos. On October 14, 1986, the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) was passed. This amended the Toxic Substances Control Act to specifically create regulations for asbestos hazard abatement in schools. It is also known as the Asbestos in Schools Program.
AHERA created plans for operations, maintenance, inspections, transportation, management and the disposal of asbestos in Kindergarten through Grade 12 schools. It also required each local educational agency to develop an asbestos management plan. The goal was to ensure regulatory compliance and reduce the risk of asbestos exposure in schools.
AHERA and other federal asbestos regulations do not require the removal of asbestos where it already exists in schools. Instead, they focus on how to take action to prevent and minimize asbestos hazards. For example, if a renovation project or the demolition of a school building is planned, the personnel working on these projects must be trained and properly licensed to deal with asbestos abatement.
Student and Employee Asbestos Exposure Risk
Asbestos may no longer be used to build schools, but for many, the damage has already been done. Decades of constructing school buildings while relying on asbestos-containing materials mean that thousands of schools contain this carcinogen today. This puts millions of students, teachers, school administrators and other employees at risk of asbestos exposure and related illnesses, including mesothelioma.
On July 8, 2022, Bailey & Glasser, LLP partner Michael Robb convinced the EPA to evaluate college and university students and employees to determine if they are at an increased risk of exposure to asbestos. Mr. Robb wrote a letter requesting that the EPA add these groups to its list of “Potentially Exposed or Susceptible Subpopulations” in Section 2.5 of its Scoping Document. The EPA responded in the affirmative, stating that it will include them in its risk evaluation.
Who Is Most at Risk?
Many high-traffic areas of a school can contain asbestos, including classrooms, cafeterias, corridors, auditoriums and teachers’ lounges. Evidence suggests that children may be more at risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses than adults. Research from the U.K. government’s Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) in 2013 found that at the age of 5, the lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma is approximately five times greater than that of a 30-year-old.
In addition, an EPA risk assessment study from 1984 estimated that approximately 1,000 premature deaths would occur over the next 30 years due to asbestos exposure. The study hypothesized that environmental exposure to asbestos posed a greater risk to children because they “breathe at higher rates, breathe more often by mouth and are more active than adults.” This led to the study concluding that schoolchildren would account for about 90 percent of the forecasted premature deaths.
What Is Being Done to Protect Teachers and Students From Asbestos in Schools?
Due to the high price of asbestos removal and abatement, the majority of schools in the country tend to not do anything about this problem. In 2015, two senators wrote to all 50 state governors to ask for information on the existence of asbestos in schools. The letter noted that the extent of the hazard posed by asbestos in schools across the nation remains largely unknown. As summarized in a subsequent report, there was only a 40 percent response rate to the letter. Of the responders, about two-thirds reported having schools that were known to harbor asbestos.
Overall, states do not appear to be following the requirements laid out in AHERA to monitor asbestos in schools, investigate hazards or address health risks. For instance, the majority of responding states could not offer a tally of complaints of alleged AHERA violations since the law took effect over 30 years ago. States also do not conduct regular asbestos inspections to detect hazards or enforce compliance.
Asbestos-abatement procedures are lax on a federal level, as well. In 2018, a report from the EPA’s Office of Inspector General stated that only 13 percent of nationwide AHERA inspections that were supposed to take place from 2011 to 2015 were actually performed. It also found that about half of the agency’s 10 regional districts only inspected schools for asbestos if they received specific complaints.
Examples of Elementary, High School and University Asbestos Use
There are countless examples of schools across the country finding asbestos on their premises and – in most cases – failing to remedy the problem or properly protect their students and staff. Here are three stories from the elementary, high school and university levels that highlight this issue.
Lewis C. Cassidy Elementary School
In 2018, the Philadelphia Inquirer conducted an investigation into the presence of asbestos at Lewis C. Cassidy Elementary School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The results of the inquiry were shocking: they found that surface dust tested from one of the classrooms contained 50 times more asbestos fibers per square centimeter (4,000,000 fibers) than the highest result of settled dust tested in the apartments near Ground Zero after the 9/11 terror attacks.
Hempstead High School
Hampstead High School in Long Island, New York, has been the center of multiple asbestos issues that have resulted in investigations, lawsuits, and allegations of fraud and mismanagement. In 2004, the public high school was shut down for a week due to an unsuccessful asbestos cleanup 14 years previously. Dust that contained asbestos was found after a panel fell off the wall of a classroom – meaning that the $1.9 million asbestos cleanup from 1990 failed to rid the school of asbestos.
Penn State University
In 1977, after complaints from teachers that parts of the ceiling were flaking off, Penn State University conducted widespread testing of more than 100 of its buildings. The tests confirmed that the material was asbestos. Penn State University attempted to sue the manufacturer, Johns Manville, to cover the $8.5 million it would take to remedy the problem. Johns Manville, however, was bankrupt and facing hundreds of similar lawsuits.
Without any funding available, Penn State did little to rid the building of asbestos. It was cheaper and easier to “wait and see” if the asbestos would cause any health problems. Unfortunately, this is a common trend at many schools and universities in the country. Penn State is now facing multiple lawsuits for student and teacher illnesses connected to exposure to asbestos.
What Can I Do if I Develop an Illness as a Result of Asbestos Exposure in a School?
If you or a loved one has developed an illness such as mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos in a school, you have legal rights and options. Anyone who fails to comply with federal and state asbestos regulations can be held liable for civil penalties for related illnesses. This means you may have the right to file a claim against one or more parties for negligently exposing you to asbestos in a school building.
In this situation, you should contact an asbestos attorney near you as soon as possible. Different states have different time limits, but most range from one to three years. Acting quickly can ensure that you protect your right to recover compensation. Personal injury and wrongful death claims are the most common lawsuits for asbestos exposure. You could file this type of lawsuit if a person or party – such as a school – negligently failed to protect you from asbestos exposure.
Bringing a claim for an illness caused by asbestos could result in financial compensation for your past and future medical bills, lost wages, lost quality of life, pain and suffering, and more. Most of these cases reach settlements, meaning they do not have to go to trial. You may also be eligible to file a claim with an asbestos trust fund. This is a fund set up by a company that has gone bankrupt to ensure that victims of asbestos exposure can still receive financial compensation.
Contact an Asbestos in Schools Attorney Today
For more information about your legal rights after being exposed to asbestos in a school, college or university, call the attorneys at Bailey & Glasser, LLP at (877) 852-0342 to schedule a case consultation. We have law offices across the country.