Hundreds of kids in Orange County, California are able to return to their schools this month, after having been closed for nearly a year because of asbestos exposure concerns, according to the LA Times.
Hope View, Oak View, and Lake View elementary schools were all closed last October to accommodate construction crews removing asbestos and modernizing facilities. The closures displaced some 1,600 students who had to be bused to other schools: costing the Ocean View School District $50,000 per week.
Lake View Elementary School remains closed for the school year, and 10 temporary classrooms are being used at Oak View Elementary while some work continues.
The schools were closed last year when a whistleblower, John Briscoe – a trustee on the school board, learned that asbestos removal was being conducted while staff and students were in the building.
School officials came under heavy criticism from understandably outraged parents, who only became aware of the problem following Briscoe’s filing of a formal complaint with the California Department of Industrial Relations, a state agency that monitors employee safety.
This episode recalls a similar incident in April this year at Bay Minette Elementary School in Baldwin County, Alabama, where asbestos was found in the school library.
In the Alabama case, the library was sealed off, while asbestos exposure testing by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Amec Foster Wheeler, an environmental consulting firm, found no imminent threat of danger. An EPA report on the Baldwin County school system’s performance concluded the district failed to adequately communicate with parents and teachers and also “failed to develop and/or implement” an operations and maintenance plan.
Asbestos in schools: More common than you think?
Asbestos is definitively linked to mesothelioma. Up until the 1970s, asbestos was widely used in construction, often as fireproofing material. Thousands of older school buildings serving millions of students and employing thousands of adults are believed to hold asbestos-containing materials, according to the EPA.
So long as it remains undisturbed, asbestos poses a minimal health risk. It is when asbestos fibers are airborne that they cause serious health problems. Asbestos can become airborne if materials containing it are damaged – say during inattentive maintenance work or improper removal.
As far back as 1984, the EPA estimated that 15 million students and 1.4 million teachers and other staff could face exposure to airborne asbestos in schools. In 1986, Congress started requiring schools to regularly inspect their buildings for asbestos, as well as to take appropriate precautionary measures to abate it and inform the public.
Current EPA policy on asbestos-containing materials in schools only requires management of these materials in place – not removal. However, even with proper management, allowing these materials to remain in place still poses a latent risk for harmful asbestos exposures.
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