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30 Years after the AHERA Act, Going to School Can Still Give Your Child Cancer

30 Years after the AHERA Act, Going to School Can Still Give Your Child Cancer

Straight Talk about Mesothelioma, a blog series created by Michael T. Milano, M.D., Ph.D., a radiation oncology specialist, as a resource for mesothelioma patients and their loved ones.


When you become a parent, you realize that you would do anything to protect your child. So what would you do if you knew that your child was being exposed to a dangerous, cancer-causing substance every day while at school?

Unfortunately, many parents around the U.S. do not realize that asbestos in schools is still something they need to be worrying about. Newer school buildings tend not to be a concern, but those constructed before 1980 are almost guaranteed to house some asbestos-containing materials if modern renovations or asbestos abatement actions have not taken place.

The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) was signed into law in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, making this year its 30th anniversary. This law was supposed to keep our children safe, but 3 decades later, it is clear there is still a lot that needs to be done.

The Goal of the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act

The heart of AHERA is in the right place because at the end of the day, it seeks to protect our country’s children. The law requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to push regulations that require educational agencies to:

  • Inspect school buildings for asbestos-containing materials
  • Prepare asbestos management plans
  • Perform asbestos response actions to prevent or reduce asbestos hazards

When AHERA was signed into law on October 22, 1986, Lee M. Thomas, head of the EPA, was optimistic about the future:

“EPA believes that the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act represents a positive step toward protecting the estimated 15 million students and 1.4 million employees who are potentially exposed to friable asbestos-containing material in 35,000 schools.”

In 2016, however, with many older schools still containing asbestos, it seems that enforcement of this law has fallen through the cracks.

Senators Seek Answers from School Districts

Senator Edward M. Markey (D-MA) and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), both known for being champions for victims of asbestos exposure, knew about the asbestos problem in American schools. In March 2015, they set out to start a conversation and make a change by writing to all 50 governors in the U.S. They asked the governors about the implementation and enforcement of AHERA to better understand the scope of asbestos remaining in schools. Markey and Boxer felt this was necessary to determine whether reforms need to be made.

20 states responded to Markey and Boxer, while 30 states ignored them entirely. In their report about the findings, Failing the Grade: Asbestos in America’s Schools, the senators listed the major discoveries:

  • The scope of asbestos hazards in the U.S. is likely widespread, but remains difficult to ascertain.
  • States do not appear to be systematically monitoring, investigating, or addressing asbestos hazards in schools.
  • States do not report conducting regular inspections of local education agencies to detect asbestos hazards and enforce compliance.
  • States do not report record-keeping activities intended to keep track of asbestos hazard information or remediation activities in schools.

“We don’t have any indication that the government is doing its job to make sure measures are in place,” said Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group.

Without the government — on both federal and state levels — enforcing AHERA, many school districts are opting to look the other way when it comes to asbestos. Removing asbestos-containing materials from older school buildings can be incredibly expensive and time-consuming, so while some educational organizations may say that they care about the health of their local children, they don’t care enough to spend the money required.

Asbestos Problems and Abatement in Schools during the Past Year

Reports throughout the last year proved that asbestos is still a menacing issue in older schools — and the abundance of reports show us that asbestos isn’t going to magically disappear on its own.

  • Huntington Beach, California: Roughly 1,300 elementary school students at Oak View Elementary had to be bussed to various schools over the year when an asbestos abatement project ran into delay after delay.
  • Montgomery County, Maryland: Construction of a middle school was interrupted when asbestos flooring tiles from the demolished Kensington Junior High were found buried at the site.
  • Reno, Nevada: A pipe burst in the cafeteria of Pine Middle School, causing not only major water damage, but also the possibility of airborne asbestos. Floor tiles were held in place with a glue that contained asbestos, and those floor tiles started to pop out due to the flooding.
  • Berkeley County, South Carolina: The Berkeley County School District had to pay $213,004 extra during a high school renovation project when higher-than-expected levels of asbestos were found. Asbestos had been supposedly removed from the building in 1997, but more was found in the ceiling tiles and carpet.
  • Meriden, Connecticut: Asbestos was discovered in the Platt High School auditorium during a major renovation and reconstruction project, adding more than $140,000 to the budget and delaying work.

The list truly goes on and on. It is unclear if Boxer and Markey have any plans to act on the findings of their report this year, but they are not the type to let something like this slide. Citizens should expect to be hearing from the 2 senators soon about what they think needs to be done and what reforms to AHERA need to be made on its 30th birthday.

School Children Are Counting on Us to Make Sure Things Change

As schools built before 1980 begin to deteriorate around our children, the need for the removal of asbestos will continue to grow. Asbestos is most dangerous when disturbed because its fibers are released into the air, breathed in by students and teachers, and can become lodged in an individual’s lungs, heart, or stomach. These fibers can eventually cause mesothelioma – a rare and deadly cancer – to develop 20-50 years later.

AHERA reform needs to happen now. We know about the dangers of asbestos and we are putting our children at risk every single day. What are we waiting for?

Dr. Milano is a sponsored contributor to Mesothelioma Help Now.