At Texas State Technical College (TSTC) in Harlingen, a handful of employees have been ordered to undergo special training in asbestos and lead removal, or remediation.
These procedures, outlined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under its National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants, or NESHAP, regulations, as well as Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) provisions outlined for all U.S. schools, and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) rules (which note that heaviest asbestos exposures in industry likely occur during renovation or demolition), all describe the best and most appropriate ways to remove asbestos-containing materials, or ACMs, from commercial, industrial and residential structures.
In TSTC’s case, the new asbestos instruction mandate is aimed at helping employees deal with the college’s older buildings at the Harlingen campus. TSTC also operates campuses in Marshall, Waco, and West Texas, which includes Abilene, Breckenridge, Brownwood and Sweetwater.
The TSTC Harlingen location was established in 1967, just two years after the technical college’s founding as the James Connally Technical Institute (JCTI), a division of Texas A & M University created to meet the state’s evolving workforce needs. Connally, a former governor, predicted at the time that it would become “the most sophisticated technical-vocational institute in the country.”
The prediction has proven true, but the oldest campus, at Harlingen, mostly built in what is now thought of as the heyday of ACM manufacturing, contains buildings with unfortunately high levels of asbestos. These buildings also contain lead, at levels that now violate new rules established by the EPA.
The lead is primarily in paint. The asbestos, which can be found in a plethora of construction materials from flooring to acoustical and decorative plaster sprays, is also part of tile glues, mastic, felted tile and sheet flooring backing, in the grouting used to seal windows, and in most insulative applications, including blankets or batts for walls, around boilers, boiler pipes, furnace ductwork and the like, not to mention roofing tiles, asbestos-cement roofing products, roof shingles and asbestos-cement water pipes.
Asbestos, widely used from about 1920 to the mid-1970s, was once considered a miracle compound, both for its thermal characteristics (which prevented the transfer of heat and cold) and for its imperviousness to chemical degradation.
However, it is this very resilience that makes asbestos a health danger, because its fibers – smaller than human hairs and persistent in living tissue – lead to lesions which can, in turn, lead to tumors anywhere from the esophagus to the intestines and colon.
Some are benign, but most are cancerous, notably mesothelial tumors, which occur most often in the lungs (as pleural mesothelioma) as a result of inhaling the above-mentioned fibers.
Mesothelioma is a stealthy disease that lies dormant for up to five decades before producing the kinds of symptoms that force victims to seek a doctor’s help. Unfortunately, by the time it is diagnosed, mesothelioma has commonly affected so much vital tissue, and so many organs, that doctors can offer little more than a prognosis of about a year to live.
Where a patient’s health and stamina are not so seriously depleted as to prevent such intervention, doctors may perform surgery, or request radiation and chemotherapy (or prescribe a combination regimen). The effort is not designed to cure, but to provide improved breathing and decreased pain, and this palliative therapy – while not prolonging lives notably – does improve the quality of life in some instances.
At TSTC, the course – Asbestos Abatement Training Worker (course code EPCT 1054) – will provide college maintenance employees with the skills needed to insure that they, and any students, teachers and visitors who come in contact with their renovations work, are well protected from the consequences of asbestos exposure.
The course complies with the Texas Department of State Health Services Toxic Substance Control Division requirements, and guarantees that graduates will: be able to identify the steps in asbestos abatement that make for safe work practices; fit and use a respirator in appropriate fashion; and understand the correct disposal methods for asbestos.
At 36 hours of classroom time, and presumably at no cost to employees, the program seems something that technical colleges across the nation should be offering, if only to ensure that the nation’s asbestos legacy – now set to diminish by 2030 at the earliest – does not continue to kill 10,000 people a year.
Sources: Environmental Working Group, EPA website, TSTC website, KXXV