More than thirty years ago, the United State Environmental Protection Agency was directed to create and enforce regulations to get asbestos out of our schools. A generation later, we are still waiting.
How we became concerned about asbestos in school and what we did about it
In 1984, an EPA survey revealed that 34,800 schools in the United States contained friable asbestos materials that could be crushed and turned into powder with hand pressure. The risk of inhaling asbestos fibers with these kinds of materials is very high.
To address this public health issue, the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) of 1986 was enacted, tasking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with developing regulations requiring schools to inspect their buildings for asbestos and having any materials containing asbestos removed by qualified asbestos abatement professionals.
A dozen states sought a waiver from this law, nine other states did not seek a waiver, but chose to handle inspections on their own. Most states opted for federal implementation of these regulations.
Since that time, periodic audits have been performed to address performance. The most recent was frightening.
Shocking audit results
A September 17th report from the Office of the Inspector General, summarizing the most recent EPA performance audit for years 2011-2015, found a significant discrepancy in inspections between states who relied on federal inspections and those who conducted their own inspections. States who conducted their own inspections completed 87 percent of the inspections required of them; whereas states who relied on the EPA to conduct inspections, had a compliance rate of just 13 percent.
Why the low rating? According to the report, enforcement of AHERA is underfunded and not a top priority of the EPA.
How are Minnesota and other midwestern states impacted by the EPA failure?
Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Iowa are among the states who rely on federal inspection. The potential impact to these states is detailed in the report:
“Without knowing whether LEAs are complying with AHERA and identifying and properly managing asbestos in schools, there is an increased risk that asbestos in schools may go unnoticed, potentially resulting in asbestos exposure.”
The potential impact of this is significant. If asbestos is not properly abated in our schools, we run the risk of exposing our children and teachers to asbestos, leaving them vulnerable to developing mesothelioma and other deadly cancers.