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Asbestos was used in almost every public and commercial building constructed before the 1980s in the United States. As a fireproofing material, it was applied to steel beams and columns during the construction of multistory buildings. Because of its strength, asbestos was added to concrete, asphalt, vinyl materials in roof shingles, pipes, siding, wallboard, floor tiles, joint compounds, and adhesives. Its heat-resistant qualities made asbestos the perfect thermal insulation. The material was also used in acoustical plaster and as a component of a mixture sprayed on ceilings and walls. In short, it was the miracle material of the building industry.

However, asbestos becomes a hazard when it is damaged, crumbles, or is in a state of disrepair. It then poses a health risk to building occupants, repairmen, and maintenance workers because asbestos fibers may be released into the air. The risk is even greater if the building is demolished, renovated, or remodeled.

Because of the serious problems associated with asbestos exposure, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emphasizes that asbestos in buildings should be located and appropriately managed, and requires that workers who disturb asbestos be specially trained (Asbestos Informer, EPA). In some cases, asbestos-containing material may be contained by using encapsulants, which are materials applied in liquid form to provide a seal against the release of asbestos fibers. In other cases, such as when the asbestos is widespread and friable (easily crumbled or reduced to powder) or likely to become friable, removal of the asbestos is the only acceptable course of action.

Asbestos Regulations

The National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollution Act (NESHAP), 40 CFR Part 61, Subpart M, applies to potential public exposure to asbestos in public, commercial, and some residential buildings that are being demolished or renovated. These buildings must be inspected by a licensed asbestos inspector to determine the presence or absence of asbestos. NESHAP contains detailed descriptions of what asbestos materials are friable, what materials are likely to become friable, and under what conditions non-friable asbestos becomes dangerous such as through sanding, grinding, and cutting (Asbestos/NESHAP Regulated Asbestos Guide, EPA). The Act also prohibits the use of spray asbestos, and of wet applied and molded insulation (pipe lagging) containing asbestos.

Building owners and those in charge of asbestos removal must notify state and local agencies and EPA offices before demolition or renovation activity begins. NESHAP asbestos removal requirements include sealing off the area from which the asbestos will be removed; shutting off forced-air heating systems, fitting asbestos workers with approved respirators and other protective gear, wetting asbestos during the removal process, specialized cleaning of the area after asbestos is removed and containing and labeling asbestos waste for appropriate disposal at an approved landfill.

The Occupational Safety and Health Commission (OSHA) also regulates work procedures for asbestos removal, including requiring the use of enclosures, ventilation systems, and certain filters.

Schools Required to Inspect Asbestos Products for Hazards

Until the early 1970s, almost every school was constructed with asbestos-containing products. Asbestos was part of floor and ceiling tiles, acoustical plaster, pipe insulation, and fireproofing materials. Cold-weather states employed vast amounts of the material in school insulation systems. As the hazards of asbestos became better known, however, the public grew alarmed about the potential effects of asbestos exposure on school children. A series of laws were enacted to address this issue. Although progress is being made, asbestos-containing material still exists in many of the nation’s primary and secondary schools.

Asbestos in Schools Regulated by AHERA and ASHARA

In 1986, the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA; Asbestos Containing Materials in Schools, 40 CFR Part 763, Subpart E) was signed into law. It requires local education authorities to inspect their schools for asbestos-containing building materials and prepare management plans which recommend the best way to reduce the asbestos hazard. Options include repairing damaged asbestos-containing material, spraying it with a sealant, enclosing it, removing it, or keeping it in good condition so that it does not release fibers.

The school’s management plan must be developed by accredited management planners and approved by the state in which the school is located. Local education agencies must notify parents, teacher, and employer organizations of the plans, and then implement them. AHERA also requires accreditation of asbestos abatement designers, contractor supervisors and workers, building inspectors, and school management plan writers.

The first management plans were due on October 12, 1988, but the Act arranges for reinspection and surveillance. Schools built after that date must also be inspected for asbestos hazards and follow an asbestos management plan.

Inspections and reinspections are covered by the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA, Asbestos Hazardous Response, 15 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq.) and other regulations in addition to AHERA. The Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Reauthorization Act (ASHARA), enacted in 1990 and implemented in 1994, governs the training that asbestos workers, inspectors, supervisors, plan management writers, and abatement designers must receive to become accredited by the state. More stringent state and local laws may also cover asbestos in schools.

Asbestos in the Playground

Although asbestos in schools is addressed in various federal and local laws, some school districts have additional asbestos concerns. In geographic areas in which serpentine rock is common, asbestos-contaminated serpentine may have been used for surfacing in schoolyards and playgrounds.

In California, the Air Resources Board has issued an advisory suggesting that playgrounds, unpaved roads on school grounds, and unpaved school parking areas be inspected to determine whether they are surfaced with the asbestos-containing serpentine rock. An area surfaced with crushed rock or gravel that is grayish-green to bluish-black is suspect, and a registered geologist should check it for serpentine content. If he or she finds serpentine, the material should be tested to determine if asbestos is present. The Board recommends sealing this asbestos-containing serpentine, removing it, or covering it with non-asbestos-containing materials to prevent disturbance.

Serpentine rock occurs naturally in many regions of the western United States and in some parts of the East Coast. In California, it is abundant in the Coastal ranges, the Klamath Mountains, and the Sierra foothills.

Talk with a Seasoned Attorney About Asbestos In Public Buildings

Exposure to asbestos in public buildings can be detrimental to your health. If you developed mesothelioma, asbestosis, or another severe illness after asbestos exposure, get in touch with a dedicated lawyer as soon as possible. An attorney could help you seek the compensation you need to make things right.