Early this year, Christine Doerr raised the alarm about asbestos in Room 213 at Jefferson Junior High School in the Columbia, Missouri school district.
Doerr's concern was the result of a renovation that subsequently revealed, according to a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) inspection, high asbestos levels in the air. Missouri's DNR is the agency charged with regulating asbestos in public buildings.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, target is 1 percent, or 0.01 fibers per milliliter of air - a limit the agency does not describe as "safe" but only as acceptable. The EPA, like OSHA, the CDC and the American Cancer Society, agrees that that there is no safe level of asbestos; an hour or a lifetime can trigger mesothelioma.
The school district initially went by a 1983 inspection document, which showed that all asbestos had been removed. Given that report, school district officials felt it was safe to proceed with the renovation without hiring an asbestos inspector. After the DNR inspection, the district collected its own samples, all of which showed the same disconcertingly high levels of asbestos.
The DNR ultimately sent the school district a warning letter, advising it to insure that such violations don't happen in the future by hiring a full-time air quality inspector. The school district complied. The position is funded at $68,850.
Doerr's daughter, who suffers from allergies and asthma, has since moved to Columbia Independent School (CIS), a tuition-based private K-12 school, with the help of a full scholarship. Doerr, of course, is delighted. She is also not the first to take her child out of Columbia's public schools. In January, Ines Segert, a member of the Columbia Board of Education, moved her son over to CIS, though this time the issue was math.
Asbestos in schools is increasingly becoming a problem as America's schools age. Asbestos, widely used in many construction and renovation materials during most of the last century, can lead to a number of diseases when its fibers become airborne. One of these diseases, asbestosis, is generally triggered only by long exposures. Malignant mesothelioma, however, can be caused by a single exposure, and its tendency to lie dormant for several decades means that, by the time it is diagnosed, the cancer has become extensive, invading not only tissue but vital organs.
A number of school districts over the past decade have made the news by violating the EPA's AHERA (Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act) regulations which govern schools, both public and private. AHERA, passed in 1986, lays out some essential asbestos monitoring, reporting and remediation rules aimed at protecting America's school children from precisely the kind of hidden danger that asbestos represents.
The violations are often unintentional, but this is no protection to students. Parents who are concerned that their school district might not be up-to-date on asbestos regulations in schools can request a copy of the EPA's 20-page publication, ABCs of Asbestos in Schools (Report Number: EPA-745-K93-017), either by writing to the agency at the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, Washington D.C. 20005, or by accessing an electronic copy of the document at: http://www.epa.gov/asbestos/pubs/abcsfinal.pdf