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Environmental Health and Your School: What You Need to Worry About (and What You Don’t). Part 1: Asbestos

We’ve all seen on the news lately about Philadelphia schools closing left and right over damaged asbestos and other possible toxins being found in the old buildings. There is a lot to be concerned about with this issue, but there are also some misconceptions. What are we to do if we are concerned about environmental toxin exposure in our buildings?

The biggest things we need to be worried about in the buildings we spend our time in is the DAMAGED asbestos, flaking lead paint, mold growth that isn’t easily visible, and mouse/rat/vermin infestations. I’ll get into why we do and why we don’t need to worry about this stuff!

I’ll get right into the big one that we are all worried about right now: ASBESTOS! Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral found in some rocks that was discovered to have fabulous properties of being impervious to fire, damage or destruction. Asbestos is basically very tiny fibers that are not really able to be seen with the naked eye but when combined with other materials it was very useful. After its discovery it was used in lots of construction materials because it seemed like a really great find. They put it in literally everything from building insulation, roof tiles, floor tiles, wallboard, cement, even some types of heating unit parts (since it’s fireproof, it’s great on a heater because it won’t burn up). Asbestos is currently banned in over 60 countries but currently still a legal and used material in America. According to Dr. Frank from Drexel University’s Environmental and Occupational Health, after 1986 all schools are required by law to be inspected twice a year for loose or damaged asbestos and the reports for each school be made available to the public.

Why is asbestos such a big deal then if it’s so great? Well, it has two properties that make it awesome and also terrible: it’s indestructible and it’s made of almost invisible fibers. When you have loose fibers that are not contained in some other material and they make their way into your lungs those fibers are stuck there. Since the fibers are virtually indestructible and practically invisible they aren’t going to go away. As long as those fibers are stuck there they are blocking your air exchange from working like it should and they are causing your lungs to develop scars which further damages your ability to breathe effectively. Aside from permanent irreparable lung damage, the stuck fibers will can also cause lung cancer or a cancer called Mesothelioma, and other cancers like ovary or throat and mouth cancers. This. Is. A. Big. Deal.

If construction is being done or the suspicion of damaged asbestos is present then a professional will need to inspect and abate the asbestos correctly. The inspectors will visually assess the areas in question and determine what needs further testing and what material if any is visually identified as asbestos. The professional inspectors will take material samples and air samples collected in a filter system and examine it under a microscope to determine the presence of asbestos. They compare the findings to a scale of “safe” levels (because there are safe levels??) and then make a plan for abatement (removal) of said asbestos.

The removal of the asbestos should be performed by a trained licensed professional. They will follow the set standards by the EPA and OSHA (among others) for safe removal and cleaning. Generally this involves plastic shields to close off the areas, hepa vacuums which capture the fibers in their filters, and proper removal techniques. People who are not wearing respirator masks or are not trained in asbestos management should not be present in the home or building while this procedure is taking place. The air and material samples must be clear before anyone can inhabit the area safely.

If you are spending your time in a room with all intact asbestos walls, floor tiles, roof shingles, etc, then you likely have nothing to worry about. As long as everything is confirmed intact and not falling apart then you’re good. If you are in a place, however, with known asbestos insulation, broken floors, broken walls, or any kind of non-intact asbestos product then you are at risk. It takes a fairly long time of being exposed to the asbestos to actually become sick from it. Not everyone who is exposed will develop asbestos related disease. If you suspect that you or your child are being exposed and seeing any related health issues (chronic respiratory problems, worsening asthma) then you should definitely have an evaluation by a doctor.

If you think you or anyone is being exposed to loose asbestos some symptoms to look for are: constant dry cough even though they aren’t sick with an obvious cold, wheezing, worsening of existing asthma, shortness of breath (aside from a normal cold), and chest pain and/or chest tightness. Some people that have been exposed for a long time – many years – may experience bowel obstruction, weight loss, cancers of lungs and ovaries, or “clubbed” fingernails (the fingernails take a rounded shape and curve over, this is a symptom of chronic respiratory issues, among other things).

If you suspect that you are exposed to asbestos in the school building, the first thing to do is contact the administration in that school (principal, assistant principal). You can also contact the school district and voice your concerns an see what they know about it and what they are doing about it if anything. For my district, you can go on this page to see a lot of information about what is happening in our schools with the current asbestos and other issues:

Let your voice be heard. Be loud and don’t let anyone shut you down if you are worried. This is not an issue to be taken lightly or ignored. We want to keep our children safe and keep our staff safe so we can be the best us we can be!

Some resources to learn more about asbestos can be found here:

In the next post I will give a little info about some of the other environmental toxins we may encounter and how to deal with them.

Published by Emme Mauer M.Ed., BSN, RN, CSN

Mom to two preemies, anxiety sufferer, postpartum depression survivor, and school nurse extraordinaire.

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