Asbestos is a known significant health hazard. More than 40 years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tried unsuccessfully to fully ban asbestos use. At that time, a nationwide survey was conducted to determine the risk posed to students and teachers. The 1984 survey estimated that there were 1.4 million teachers, administrative staff, and other employees, as well as 15 million students at risk of exposure to airborne asbestos fibers.
In 1986, Congress enacted the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), which requires schools to implement protections against asbestos exposure, one of which is conducting inspections for asbestos-containing materials. There are no requirements for school to conduct inspections for mold and no legislation that protects children from mold exposure in school buildings.
Philadelphia parents and teachers have been concerned for years about dangerous physical conditions in the city’s public schools, and the City Council is now considering whether city inspectors should be required to examine schools for asbestos and mold. An investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2017 found that the Philadelphia school district has around 11 million square feet of asbestos still remaining in its older buildings. Nine out of eleven buildings that were sampled contained high asbestos fiber counts in areas used by students.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral substance that is an excellent insulator. Its flexible fibers are resistant to heat, electricity, and corrosion. However, these tiny fibers can be inhaled, where they lodge in the lungs and cause damage that can sometimes take decades to appear. Asbestos exposure can lead to mesothelioma and and a host of other health complications that has prompted over 50 countries to ban its use. In the U.S., a full ban has never been enacted.
Asbestos sheets that were commonly used in construction done before 1980 break down over time and create dust that can be carried through the air and inhaled. Children are at higher risk for developing diseases related to asbestos exposure because they breathe at a faster rate. Their lungs and respiratory systems are still developing, so their smaller lung size translates into a higher surface area to volume ratio than adults. Children may also ingest asbestos fibers accidentally by putting their fingers in their mouths.
Federal AHERA regulations require schools to carry out inspections for asbestos-containing materials and perform re-inspections of any asbestos-containing materials that are found every three years. The inspections and any remediation of known or suspected asbestos-containing materials must be performed by trained and licensed professionals.
The school must also develop, maintain, and update an asbestos management plan that is kept on hand at the school. Parents, teachers, and employee organizations are required to be informed annually about the management plan and any asbestos related actions that are planned or have taken place. A contact person must be designated whose job it is to ensure the school is properly implementing their responsibilities. Additionally, asbestos awareness training must be provided to custodial staff.
Federal AHERA requirements state that all public school districts and non-profit schools must develop, maintain, and update an asbestos management plan. The plan is a record of the location of any asbestos materials in the school and actions taken to repair and remove the materials. The plan must have the name and address of each school building, the type of asbestos material, with its location shown on a blueprint of the school, the date of the original school inspection, as well as plans for re-inspections and preventative measures. Descriptions of how teachers, students, and other staff have been informed about the inspections, re-inspections, and response actions must also be included.
If any material sampling has been performed, the name and address of the laboratory should be included in the plan. Each individual school should have a copy of the plan as well as the name address and telephone number of the person that has been designated to ensure its proper implementation.
A school’s asbestos management plan is an important safety document that every parent, teacher, and school employee has a right to inspect. Schools must annually notify parent-teacher organizations about the asbestos management plan and any asbestos-related activities happening in the school. Upon receiving a request to inspect the plan, the school has five working days to make it available to the inquiring party.
There are many different kinds of mold, and some are naturally present indoors and outdoors. However, whenever certain types of mold are allowed to proliferate, their spores or seeds can be carried through the air and breathed in causing problems, especially for anyone with asthma or allergies. Some molds are toxic and have neurotoxic and carcinogenic properties. Children are especially at risk because of their developing lungs, higher breathing rate, and frequency of hand-to-mouth behavior.
Mold needs oxygen, water, and a food source to be able to grow and it can find these needs almost anywhere. Mold can grow on food, but also on books, wood, carpets, and insulation. Older schools that have leaky roofs, pipes, windows, or foundations provide the water that mold needs to grow. Moisture can also be present after flooding or because of poor drainage. Newer schools can develop mold problems because of tightly sealed but poor ventilated air systems which prevent moisture from escaping.
Chronic exposure to mold can provoke a reaction by the immune system, which becomes sensitized to the presence of mold spores. It can be any type of mold too, not just the more toxic varieties that make news headlines. Common symptoms are similar to allergies, such as congestion, coughing, irritated eyes, runny nose, headaches, and fatigue. Less common symptoms include fever, vomiting, nausea, and nosebleeds, and some people may not react at all to the presence of mold. It is also possible to have a reaction to the chemicals produced by molds or those used to try to kill mold.
Allergic reactions to mold can lead to chronic inflammation in the body that leaves it more susceptible to secondary bacterial infections and chronic upper respiratory problems. Mold can also trigger asthma and is the leading cause of missed days at school related to chronic illness. Teachers and staff who work in mold infested schools can suffer from work-related asthma.
Mold is all around us, and a building is never technically free of all mold. However, controlling indoor humidity is the key to controlling mold outbreaks. Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems must be regularly cleaned and maintained. Leaks in plumbing and in roofs and other structural elements must be fixed. Sources of condensation should be eliminated, as well so that the indoor relative humidity remains between 30 and 50 percent. Ventilating damp areas such as janitor’s closets, pools, shower rooms, and kitchens to the outside can help lower indoor moisture levels.
The school building’s foundation should also be checked for dampness. Cutting back trees and shrubs helps to keep the building dry by allowing sunlight and fresh air to circulate. The ground should be sloped away from the foundation for proper drainage.
Experts say that federal legislation like the AHERA was created to give communities the tools to hold school officials accountable. However, in the poorest and oldest school districts where the greatest number of school buildings are in disrepair, the families of students are the least likely to have the financial or educational means to act. Sometimes, there are language barriers, or parents are not aware of their rights under the law. Most often, they are simply too busy making ends meet to add monitoring their child’s school environment to ensure it is safe to the list of problems they have to solve.
No one should have to worry about the safety of their environment, especially at school. If you or someone you love suffers from an illness caused by asbestos exposure, speak to a lawyer. Our Philadelphia asbestos lawyers at Brookman, Rosenberg, Brown & Sandler can help you discover the liable party after you are exposed to asbestos. Call us at 215-569-4000 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, we serve clients throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including Delaware County, Chester County, and Philadelphia County.