According to the Associated Press, Pennsylvania school officials recently faced charges for hiding lead and asbestos contamination in nearly a dozen schools. The article states that three individuals, including a former superintendent and two officials, knew that the drinking water in the schools contained dangerous levels of lead since 2016. Despite their knowledge of the problem, they failed to fix or disconnect the water fountains or sinks in the schools.
Two of the individuals also knew that a multitude of school locations had dangerous levels of asbestos after an inspection. Despite the fact that asbestos was found in school classrooms, restrooms, and a cafeteria, the two school officials did little to solve the health hazards. After the news was released, a total of three school officials were charged with felony child endangerment for their negligence in handling the lead and asbestos contaminations.
Asbestos is a natural mineral that was frequently used in building materials in the 20th century. Asbestos became popular for its flame-resistant properties, however, it poses a health hazard if it is inhaled or ingested. The fibers become trapped in the body and begin scarring tissues, leading to a multitude of diseases, including asbestosis and mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a cancer that is particularly aggressive and often leads to a poor prognosis after the patient’s diagnosis.
Mesothelioma patients are often exposed to asbestos through their job fields. Both construction and agricultural workers often work around asbestos due to the machinery they use and the old buildings they work around. Since mesothelioma has a latency period, most patients are diagnosed later in their life. However, the Pennsylvania students, faculty, and staff now live in fear that they will suffer from diseases due to their asbestos exposure.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the threat of asbestos in school buildings is prevalent. In fact, the agency claims that most of the nation’s primary, secondary, and charter schools contain asbestos. Since asbestos was a common building material used in the 20th century, it is likely that any school building built before the 1980s contains asbestos in some form. An investigative report in 2015 confirmed that over 65 percent of 5,309 local education agencies in 15 states had schools that contained asbestos. If the buildings wear down, it puts students, faculty, and staff in danger of exposure.
Materials that may contain asbestos include:
Procedures for identifying and removing asbestos vary from state to state. However, the U.S. Congress passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) to mandate certain procedures regarding asbestos contamination in public and non-profit schools.
The AHERA forces public and non-profit schools to do the following.:
Despite the hazards, the EPA does not force schools to remove materials that contain asbestos. This is to prevent the unnecessary spread of asbestos fibers. Asbestos is not harmful if it is contained. An asbestos removal could lead to the disruption of the fibers. This could just put students and staff more at risk for asbestos ingestion and the subsequent diseases.
Another important element is the state’s inspection status. The way an inspection is handled depends on whether the state is classified as a federal, waiver, or non-waiver state. Both parents and staff members should research to see what the school is classified as to determine how the administration handles and enforces asbestos inspections.
Waiver states oversee their own asbestos programs. There are 12 states in the United States that are waiver states. Non-waiver states conduct their own inspections, however, the EPA helps to oversee the inspections and make judgment calls when problems arise.
The last classification, which is federal jurisdiction states, is the least successful in conducting school inspections. Federal jurisdiction states are run by the EPA, however, these states have fewer inspections compared to the states who run their own inspections. In fact, a 2018 report from the EPA’s Office of Inspector General found that both waiver and non-waiver states completed 87 percent of their asbestos inspections from 2011 to 2015. In contrast, states under federal jurisdiction only conducted 13 percent of their required inspections. Reasons for these low numbers are likely due to a lack of funding for the AHERA.
Pennsylvania is one state out of 29 that is classified under federal jurisdiction for asbestos inspections. This indicates that asbestos is not treated as a priority in Pennsylvania. When there is a lack of school inspections, it could prevent both schools and the state from taking action in cases of asbestos contamination. This could lead to higher cases of diseases.
Parents and staff are encouraged to reach out to the school’s administration to learn more about their action plan for asbestos. The AHERA laws require schools to provide detailed plans within five days of a request, which can help keep families informed about any health hazards.
When schools have asbestos contamination, it puts both students and staff at risk for illnesses. However, some studies show that asbestos exposure might be more harmful to children than adults. In 2013, the Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) found that children are more vulnerable to asbestos. In fact, the research team discovered that a five-year-old child’s risk of getting mesothelioma is around five times higher than a 30-year-old adult’s risk.
It is important to note that while the COC found that children are more vulnerable to asbestos, other studies have contradicted this claim. In fact, researchers observed over 4,500 former Wittenoom residents and found that adults may be more vulnerable to asbestos. The research analyzed thousands of residents from a famous asbestos-mining town in Australia and looked at several data points. These data points include when the individual was first exposed to asbestos, when they lived in Wittenoom, and the length of their exposure. They continued to analyze these individuals until they died, faced diagnoses, or turned 85 years old. Those who were infected as children had a longer period of exposure, and their survival rate by the end of the study was higher.
By the end of the study, over 85 percent of the participants who faced exposure as children survived, compared to the 58 percent of the adults who survived. Similarly, the mesothelioma rate was 60 percent higher in the adult participants. Ultimately, the study found that the participants who faced asbestos exposure in their adulthood were 2.5 times more likely to develop mesothelioma. The contradicting evidence leads experts to assume that more research needs to be done.
If a person believes they were exposed to asbestos, they should speak to a medical professional about their concerns. If an asbestos-related disease developed, a victim may have legal obtains available for compensation. To determine if one has a case, they should speak to a lawyer right away.
If you were exposed to asbestos in a school building, one of our Philadelphia asbestos lawyers at Brookman, Rosenberg, Brown & Sandler can help. Our lawyers are dedicated to holding negligent parties accountable for dangerous asbestos exposure. Contact us online or call us at 215-569-4000 for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, we proudly serve clients throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including Delaware County, Chester County, and Philadelphia County.