Boston — Emergency federal intervention is needed to abate asbestos hazards in hundreds of Bay State schools, according to a legal petition filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Agency records show widespread noncompliance by schools with federal asbestos requirements.
Occupants of buildings with asbestos-containing materials are at risk for asbestosis, asbestos-related pleural disease, lung cancer, and malignant mesothelioma. Massachusetts Cancer Registry data indicate that teachers and school custodians are reporting cases of malignant mesothelioma, a cancerous tumor in the lining of the lung linked to asbestos exposure for the period of 1982 to 2003. Risks for students, however, have yet to be studied. More than 53 million children and about 6 million adults spend a substantial part of their days in schools, according to federal statistics.
The federal Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) requires all public and private non-profit primary and secondary schools to implement plans for asbestos containment, removal and periodic inspections. On average, 90 percent of Massachusetts schools chosen at random for audits were not in compliance with AHERA during the last ten years for which records are available (1998 to 2008). In none of the years was the rate of school compliance greater than 22 percent.
Problems uncovered in the audits included failure to:
- Keep required records to verify that when asbestos-containing building materials were disturbed, access to the area was restricted, or the air-handling system was modified or shut down;
- Ensure that maintenance/custodial staff were trained in asbestos hazards and requirements; and
- Notify parents, teachers or employee organizations of the asbestos management plan’s availability.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for enforcing AHERA but in 1998, EPA authorized the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to administer the statute, a task that, in turn, fell to the state Division of Occupational Safety. EPA retains oversight over Massachusetts’ performance – a responsibility which PEER is invoking through today’s petition.
“School children, teachers, custodians and cafeteria workers are at risk of exposure throughout the Commonwealth,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former EPA biologist and attorney, noting that recent inspections of 40 schools turned up more than 300 violations. “These ultrahigh rates of noncompliance sound an alarm bell that we need more boots on the ground now to turn the corner on this by the end of the summer, before the schools reopen.”
The PEER enforcement petition was filed today with the acting EPA Regional Administrator Curt Spalding in Boston. The petition demands that EPA immediately assume jurisdiction in order to protect public health and maintain credibility of the federal program. If Mr. Spaulding declines to intervene, PEER can appeal his inaction to EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance in Washington, Cynthia Giles.
“Preventing asbestos exposure of pupils and school personnel is the main purpose of the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act,” added Bennett. “Noncompliance rates on the order of 90 percent indicate that the Massachusetts Division of Occupational Safety may not have adequate resources to enforce federal asbestos protections.”