In July, 1983 Americans were alerted through media reports that as many as 3.24 million children could have been exposed to asbestos while in their public school classrooms (Mills, 1990, 77). The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) released a report demonstrating negligence on the part of public school systems in adhering to asbestos inspection regulations (Mills, 77). The report suggested that school officials turned a blind eye to the health hazard because of the cost associated with desperately needed repairs (Mills, 77). It paved the way for an aggressive response from public officials in moving towards implementing abatement (Mills, 77). Other unions quickly became involved, supporting the SEIU with their own recommendations and reports. It was, however, in large part, the SEIU report that initiated asbestos cleanup in public schools (Mills, 78). Until the SEIU report, the problem of asbestos, though known to government and school officials since the 1970s as evidenced in Government Accounting Office report RCED-85-91 (1985), appeared to be a quagmire that they did not want to confront.
The 1990s represented a period of asbestos abatement and asbestos management planning in public schools. In 1995, a Government Accounting Office (GAO) study reported that asbestos abatement continued to represent the most costly and most needed hazardous material removal, higher than lead in water and paint, or radon (GAO HEHS 95-61, 10). The cost was estimated at $112 billion (not limited to asbestos), and it was estimated 30,000 schools across the nation required asbestos cleanup (GAO HEHS 95-61, 10). A 1992 GAO report indicated that as many as 15 million school children attending these schools (GAO RCED 92-57FS, 1992, 1).
This same report cited government visits to 15 school districts in compiling the GAO report. Of the 15 districts visited, 13 districts developed “management” plans that included abatement, because it was the recommendation of the planning committee (GAO 92-57FS, 2). Abatement is recommended only in those cases where there is a danger of exposure. The use of asbestos is not the threat; it is the maintenance of the building or other “container” of the asbestos, which, in a state of neglect or deterioration poses a threat. In the 13 district schools where abatement was recommended, there was a danger to exposure either because of needed repairs that left the asbestos exposed, creating a risk, or, for scheduled repairs or demolition that would require abatement during those processes to mitigate the risk of exposure (GAO 92-57FS, 1-2). The latter did not suggest that exposure was an issue prior to demolition or repair work commencing. Abatement was necessary as repairs and demolition were being conducted in order to follow safety rules, and to prevent the danger of exposure.
In total, the 15 districts used to compile the government report, estimated that asbestos abatement costs between 1988 to mid 1995 would be as high as $28 million to the representative school districts (GAO 92-57FS, 2). The cost reflects a combination of elements in the steps necessary to comply with federal regulations. Asbestos requires formal notification to the EPA advising the site, the plan, and the disposal of the abated materials (GAO 92-57FS, 3). The EPA requires licensing of consultants, and individuals who perform abatement (GAO RCED-85-91, 2). The EPA looks for integrity in the processes of consulting and abatement, and for that reason the schools use different companies to perform the consulting and actual abatement (GAO RCED-85-91, 2).
The improper handling of asbestos during the abatement process can pose a risk through exposure to workers, to building occupants, and to the general public. Asbestos dust must be contained to the site, or, if released in the air, can migrate, posing a threat beyond the confines of the building in which it is used. The volatility of asbestos when it is mishandled causes the EPA to require licensing and work in progress inspections. The capacity for widespread contamination is the reason the EPA recommends that “in place management,” be practiced in schools where asbestos was used (GAO 92-57FS, 3). The government says the proper care of the material through building repair and maintenance does not pose a risk (GAO 92-57FS, 3).
The GAO reports issued on asbestos cleanup and management in public schools since the 1980s state that figures on current and complete costs of asbestos abatement in public schools is not available (GAO 92-57FS, 4). This means that the government has not taken the steps to make these determinations, because the individual school districts are responsible for the cost of abatement, management, or cleanup. The government has provided the legislative structure for rules, regulations, and compliance with inspection specifications, but it does not calculate or pay the costs of the abatement and cleanup. The government does provide financial assistance to very poor school districts (GAO 92-57FS, 4). Between 1988 and 1991, the EPA received a total of $599 million in requests for abatement assistance for needy school districts (GAO 92-57FS, 4). The EPA responded to the requests 586 schools, for a total funding amount of $157.3 million (GAO 92-57FS, 4). The actual funding falling far short of the requests, causing those schools to have to examine other financial resources to accomplish the abatement processes.
The school districts must look toward their own funding, bonds, loans and other resources normally available to schools through their communities. Since 1985 and 1991, the EPA, under its Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act (ASHAA), has funded $291.5 million in grants (GAO 92-57FS, 10). The ASHAA funding is a separate program from those funds available to needy schools. Since 1991, however, the EPA has been proactively advocating “Managing Asbestos in Place (GAO 92-572FS, 15). This is the alternative to the more costly complete abatement. Since March, 1991, 43,000 private and public schools have successfully managed asbestos in place programs. These schools comply with inspection programs, make repairs, and maintain environmentally safe learning environments without the asbestos posing a risk to students, staffs, or the public. The EPA reported in June, 1991, that 90 percent of the schools in America are able to provide safe learning environments using in place management programs, while the other 10 percent have either completed or are in the long process of complete asbestos abatement (GAO 92-572FS, 15).
Finding information on asbestos in public schools is difficult at best, and the data surrounding the government programs and the funds awarded schools is scarce and not up to date. In fact, the GAO reports begin by stating that there are no current, comprehensive studies providing useful data in useful study formats available. There is a need to update the GAO reports with current studies that provide more concise data from reliable studies. The confidence that 90 percent of the nation’s schools are successful in pursuing in place management of asbestos is low, based on the GAO reports.
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