Basically, the AHERA requires school districts to inspect their buildings for asbestos, determine the condition of the asbestos, and compile a management plan for dealing with it. AHERA inspection reports, which had to be submitted by May 1989, found friable asbestos in about 45,000 schools, placing 1.5 million teachers and 15 million students at risk.
As a result of the national attention, teachers, parents, and the public learned to fear asbestos. In their eagerness to remove it from schools, however, they often make matters worse. The EPA says that asbestos poses little risk if it's sealed or in good condition. In most cases, the material can be managed best by either enclosing it or spraying it with a sealant. Unnecessary removal merely increases the health risks. But, as Kate Herber of the National School Boards Association points out, when schools identify asbestos, building occupants and the public clamor to have it ripped out. "It's very important that school boards not undertake any rash activities until there's very sound data to support those activities,'' Herber says.
Teachers can easily find out about the asbestos status of their school. By law, asbestos-management plans must be available for review in every school's administrative office. The plans can be quite technical, says the AFT's Alexander, so teachers might want to meet with their district's designated asbestos representative for an explanation of what the document means.
One teacher has gone beyond simply checking her school's management plan. Deanna Dauber has taken the New York City public schools to court, alleging that she and her Brooklyn elementary students were exposed for years to asbestos from crumbling ceiling tiles and pipe insulation. Dauber's suit, which is pending in U.S. District Court, asks the school to establish a registry of pupils who were exposed to asbestos over the years and to supply the names of the manufacturers and suppliers of all the asbestos-containing materials. So far, says Dauber's lawyer, the New York schools have refused her requests.
"As far as I'm concerned,'' says Dauber, who has taught science at Public School 9 for more than 15 years, "the board was willfully negligent in letting children be exposed to asbestos. They knowingly let 300 kids a week sit in my classroom'' without doing anything to protect them. Some relief has come for Dauber: She no longer teaches in a leaky room with a crumbling ceiling.
For more information about asbestos, teachers can call the EPA's Toxic Substances Control Act Hotline at (202) 554-1404. The ABCs of Asbestos in Schools, a good booklet on the issues, is available through the hot line. The EPA's asbestos ombudsman, at (800) 368-5888, can answer questions about asbestos in schools, and each of the EPA's regional offices has an asbestos coordinator. In addition, every state has asbestos experts on staff, usually in the department of education or health.