Keep Our Families Safe

Asbestos: A Back-to-School Tradition We Don’t Need

There seems to be no end to the asbestos headlines and the asbestos tragedy—and indeed there won’t be, for the foreseeable future. Decades after the asbestos industry first conclusively knew the hazards of their products – 80 years ago – their deadly secret finally became widely known to the public – 40 years ago.

Still, the hazard persists. The vast quantity of “the magic mineral” used for hundreds of purposes is still with us. Even our children, their teachers, and other employees may still be exposed to deadly asbestos in schools across the nation.

Despite the widespread perception, asbestos is not even illegal, because the manufacturers successfully stopped efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to fully ban its use. To this day, it is still being used in many products, though in nothing like the quantities of the 1960s.

Just a few years ago, the media documented the revelation that the most popular brands of coloring crayons contained asbestos (as a contaminant from the talc used to help keep the sticks from breaking). The danger might not seem great – and we hope it isn’t – but tiny amounts of inhaled asbestos can cause eventually fatal cancer. There have been many confirmed cases of housewives with asbestos-caused cancer whose only source of contamination was their husbands work clothes.

However, the main source of danger for our children and adults who work with them is in the school classrooms, cafeterias, and auditoriums built mostly in the 30 years following World War II – when asbestos was widely used in floor and ceiling tile, acoustical plaster, fireproofing, and, of course, insulation. Those aging buildings are now ripe for remodeling and repairs – work that almost inevitably stirs up the hidden asbestos. Aware of the hazards posed by these old schools, in 1986 Congress passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), mandating the EPA to require school districts to set up a plan to inspect their schools and properly manage the abatement of any asbestos discovered. Periodically the media report that a school has been temporarily closed for asbestos removal or permanently closed and slated for demolition. We also read reports about asbestos abatement contractors who are not properly accredited or whose workmanship is shoddy.

Your school district’s Asbestos Management Plan and all enforcement records should be available to the public. Asbestos already has killed an estimated 300,000 men, women, and children in this country alone since the mid-1960s. An analysis of the government's own data by the Environmental Working Group found that asbestos kills 10,000 Americans a year. Many, many more thousands will die in the coming decades, before the national epidemic – not too strong a description – starts winding down. The various lung diseases related to the inhalation of asbestos fibers are irreversible, progressive, and all-too-often fatal. These diseases commonly require decades to run their course.

Thousands of internal documents brought to light during civil litigation over the past 30 years have confirmed the asbestos industry’s orchestrated efforts to conceal the lethal hazards of their product from their own workers and the public at large. The asbestos companies' insurers were complicit in the cover-up. Now the asbestos and insurance industries are trying to persuade Congress to approve legislation that would restrict the legal liability of the companies and prevent many sick workers from even filing a lawsuit to receive full compensation.

For information and data on the overall asbestos health crisis, including a remarkable interactive map, check the site of the Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org.

 For more information on asbestos in the schools, call the hotline at 800-471-7127, or the asbestos ombudsman at 800-368-5888.


Todd A. Smith president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, is a partner in the Chicago, IL, law firm of Power Rogers & Smith.