Mesothelioma Risk for Teachers Abnormally High
School employees are “the forgotten municipal workers,” according to DL Alexander of the American Federation of Teachers (Occup. Med. 2001, Jan-Mar; 16(1): 65-78). He points to crumbling school buildings with inadequate indoor air quality and the potential for asbestos exposure.
Schools built during the 1940s through the 1970s are likely to contain asbestos, which was used extensively during that period. The list of asbestos-containing products includes common building materials such as insulation, pipe wrap, ceiling tiles, floor tiles, coatings, roof shingles and drywall as well as some less common items such as lab counter/tabletops, theater fire curtains, and backing on chalkboards. Asbestos has the potential to enter the classroom if these materials become worn, damaged or disturbed.
According to a 1982 report by the Environmental Protection Agency, about 100,000 to 300,000 teachers in 8,600 schools were exposed to airborne asbestos in their classrooms. Legislators later enacted the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) to require schools to have adequate asbestos management plans, and the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Reauthorization Act (ASHARA) governing school asbestos inspections.
Despite AHERA and ASHARA, teachers may still be exposed to asbestos during renovations, routine maintenance and asbestos abatement activities. Also, it usually takes decades to develop asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma. Therefore, retired teachers who worked in the classroom 30 or 40 years ago may first be showing disease symptoms today.
A High Mesothelioma Rate Among School Teachers
Mesothelioma is an aggressive asbestos-related cancer that first attacks the membranes lining the lungs (pleural mesothelioma) or the stomach (peritoneal mesothelioma). The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found an elevated rate of mesothelioma among school teachers in a study that took place from 1999 through 2001 (Int J Occup Environ Health, 2006 Jan-Mar; 12(1): 9-15). According to an earlier report by the Environmental Working Group, 137 teachers died from mesothelioma in the period from 1985 through 1999.
In New York, one researcher reviewed the health and asbestos exposure history of four teachers with pleural mesothelioma, and found that their only contact with asbestos was in the schools in which they taught (Ann N Y Acad Sci., 1991 Dec 31; 643: 454-86). A Wisconsin report analyzed the deaths of 12 teachers from pleural mesothelioma. For nine of the teachers, their only potential source of asbestos exposure was from asbestos-containing material in their classrooms (Ann N Y Acad Sci., 1991 Dec 31; 643: 550-72).
Compared to pleural mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma is a rarer form of the cancer. Public school teachers have an increased risk of developing peritoneal mesothelioma, according to a National Cancer Institute report, which reviewed national peritoneal mesothelioma statistics over an 8-year period (Am J Ind Med., 1999 Jan; 35(1): 9-14).
The Classroom, Mesothelioma and Your Legal Rights
Although some defendants have attempted to say that the amount of airborne asbestos in the classroom is low, we know that there is really no safe level of asbestos exposure. In addition, a teacher may be exposed to cumulative amounts of asbestos from the classroom over the course of his or her teaching career. Furthermore, renovations and other repair activities can release a high level of asbestos fibers. All these factors may go into a case against the companies that made the asbestos products used in the schools.