As we send our kids back to school, we do our best to prepare them for the new academic year. We buy their school supplies, make their lunches, sort out secure routes to and from campus and attempt to curb bullying. But there is a truly lethal threat that we scarcely discuss: asbestos poisoning.
Roughly one-third of American schools contain asbestos, the dangerous mineral once heralded for its fire-resistant properties, but which we now know causes cancer and a host of other diseases, even at very low levels of exposure.
Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach was confronted with this reality in August, when contractors moved around asbestos-covered tiles in a storage room attached to the library — while students and their parents were registering for classes. After an investigation, the South Coast Air Quality District cited the school for 27 violations, finding that it had not even surveyed for asbestos.
Asbestos-related illnesses are not anomalies that pop up every once in a while: About 40,000 Americans die from them each year. My daughter graduated from Mira Costa High School in 2011, and her father, my husband, died in 2005 from an aggressive cancer caused by asbestos.
There are regulations in place to prevent the kind of blunder we saw at Mira Costa. Public and nonprivate schools around the country are supposed to comply with the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, which requires that schools take many measures, including conducting asbestos inspections, having management plans and communicating with maintenance staff.
In a letter to parents, Manhattan Beach Superintendent Michael Matthews claimed the contractor was installing carpet on tile that was known to contain asbestos as a “preventative measure intended to protect the tile from damage to avoid potential asbestos exposure.” So, yes, the school district took preventive measures. But why was asbestos present in Mira Costa High School in the first place?
One reason so many American schools still contain asbestos is clear: The Environmental Protection Agency continues to appease industry lobbyists by refusing to ban asbestos. The agency once tried to enforce an existing ban on the mineral decades ago, but in 1991 the industry used technicalities to force the courts to overturn the ban.
Decades later, in 2016, Congress overhauled the Toxic Substances Control Act and developed a plan to remove obstacles to regulation, making asbestos one of the first materials to be assessed for safety. But President Trump’s EPA appointees, many of whom are former lobbyists for polluting industries, have since distorted the law to favor polluters over public health.
Trump himself has professed a love for asbestos in the past, claiming its removal from the World Trade Center was the reason the towers fell. “If we didn't remove incredibly powerful fire retardant asbestos & replace it with junk that doesn't work, the World Trade Center would never have burned down,” he wrote on Twitter in 2012.
Unbelievably, the EPA’s new assessment suggests the agency will not even require that the risk of asbestos be evaluated in homes, workplaces, existing infrastructure or schools. This is unfathomable.
We already know there is asbestos in schools. The EPA reported to Congress in 1984 that “most” of the country’s approximately 107,000 primary and secondary schools, as well as 733,000 public and commercial buildings, contained asbestos. That was 34 years ago, and nothing has improved since then. A more recent investigation commissioned by U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) found that more than two-thirds of the country’s state education agencies reported having schools that contain asbestos.
Here in Southern California, the Ocean View School District had to close three Huntington Beach elementary schools over asbestos concerns in 2014, displacing more than 1,000 students for years and costing the district an estimated $18 million. Although the district did the right thing by closing the schools, serious damage may already have been done. It can take 10 to 50 years for an asbestos-related illness to show up.
It’s unthinkable that this even needs to be said, but children deserve safe and healthy learning environments that foster education and creativity, not old buildings that harbor deadly substances. Countless other industries have outlawed asbestos because it’s too dangerous. Yet we allow nearly 34% of our school children to be exposed to it.
We need to do more to protect ourselves — and especially our kids — from asbestos. Local communities cannot manage the risk on their own. We need strong federal laws to do that.
Until the EPA finds its backbone and institutes a ban, companies will continue to import contaminated products, industry workers will endure deadly risks and our kids will be one disturbed floor tile away from a substance that has killed millions.