COMMENTARY: Legacy of asbestos in NJ's aging schools – Cherry Hill Courier Post

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The Trump administration is retreating from a review of some of the most perilous chemicals, including millions of tons of asbestos. The review would be limited to chemicals entering the marketplace, and not toxins already in public use. (Oct. 25)
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According to a 2014 report by the Institute of Education Services, the average age of public school buildings in the United States is 44 years. This is an increase of four years from the last time the survey was conducted in 1999. Moreover, here in New Jersey, the average age of public school buildings is more than 50 years. Our rapidly aging schools force us to question vital questions about their safety for students and staff.

Many public schools were built during the 1950s and 1960s to accommodate the baby boomer generation. Unfortunately, during that era of public school construction, asbestos-containing materials were commonplace. From ceiling and floor tiles to mastic, joint compounds, insulation and cement, asbestos was found in hundreds of products and heralded for its strength and ability to withstand heat and chemicals. Those benefits also came with a price tag — the mineral is carcinogenic, and exposure to airborne fibers has been linked to mesothelioma, asbestosis and other diseases.

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that is invisible to the naked eye. Asbestos-containing products served a variety of uses in home and building construction, but also had valuable roles in automotive applications and shipbuilding until the mid-1970s when regulations were issued through the Toxic Substances Control Act. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S.  Environmental Protection Agency, there are no acceptable levels of asbestos exposure, though there are limits in place for employees who may come into contact with it during their workday.

Just recently, classes were canceled in at least two schools in the Pinelands Regional district due to concerns about asbestos. Asbestos is relatively safe when it is in excellent condition and undisturbed. It becomes a health hazard when it comes loose or crumbles and releases microscopic fibers into the air. This condition is also known as friable. There are three types of activities that account for most asbestos exposures in schools: construction, demolition and renovation; maintenance activities; and accidental disturbance. 

Airborne asbestos fibers can easily enter the body through inhalation or ingestion, and may become lodged in the lining of the lungs. In other cases, though much more rare, those fibers may travel to other parts of the body, lodging themselves into the linings of the abdomen or heart. Once the fibers become lodged in the mesothelium, they irritate the area and eventually lead to tumor development.

For children attending older schools, and for school staff working in or near affected rooms, hurt materials and crumbling products could pose a significant health risk. School districts are required under the Asbestos Hazards Emergency Response Act to inspect their school buildings for asbestos-containing building material, prepare asbestos management plans and perform asbestos response actions to prevent or reduce asbestos hazards. In New Jersey, the EPA delegated the authority to conduct AHERA inspections to the Department of Health and funded this work through a grant to the state. Unfortunately, like so many other programs, funding is inadequate and oversight and enforcement is weak, leaving children and school staff vulnerable.

Since the mid-1970s and the passage of TSCA, asbestos use has declined precipitously, despite not being banned in the U.S., mainly because safer and more effective alternatives have come into the market. While progress has been made to limit certain uses of asbestos, it has never successfully been banned. In 1989, the EPA issued its Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule, which was challenged in the courts by industry and overturned in 1991, citing a lack of consideration for other more cost-effective options. Essentially, a weak TSCA failed to justify the ban.

In 2016, following the passage of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, the go to re-evaluate asbestos started. Last December, asbestos was named as one of 10 priority chemicals first up for evaluation by the agency.

With a new evaluation comes the hope that a final phase-out might be possible. The EPA should take action to protect students, workers, public health and the environment, and make the United States the 56th nation to enact a complete ban on asbestos.

Marie Blistan is president of the New Jersey Education Association. Dan Fatton is executive director of the NJ Work Environment Council.

 

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Security costs concerning Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, have gone through the roof after he received death threats.
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