Asbestos, Ubiquitous and Unavoidable, Is a Deadly Threat to Our Kids
By Derrick Z. Jackson
In the U.S., gun violence kills nearly 40,000 people a year and has killed nearly 40,000 or so children and teenagers since 1999, and yet the nation is still without serious gun control. Another 40,000 people die each year in traffic accidents, including 1,200 children 14 and under. Yet we eschew policies used abroad that could cut the toll by half.
As the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) documents in its new report, Endangering Generations: How the Trump Administration's Assault on Science is Harming Children's Health, asbestos is a lesser known, but no less potent member of the American annual "40,000 Death Club." The current attempt by the Trump administration to severely limit research on asbestos exposure may create a whole new class of victims: today's children who attend crumbling old schools and breathe in poisonous fibers from damaged asbestos boiler and pipe insulation and floor and ceiling tiles.
Asbestos is a carcinogenic mineral now banned in more than 60 nations. But it has never been fully prohibited in the U.S. even after asbestos makers were exposed in the 1970s for having covered up the potentially lethal effects of their products in manufacturing, building insulation, and fireproofing. Raw asbestos is no longer mined in the U.S. But it is still being imported, primarily for the chlorine industry. It is also still found in automotive brakes and some building roofing and ceiling tile.
Like cigarettes, asbestos is a time bomb causing disease in victims decades after exposure — in this case lung cancer and mesothelioma. Historically, the people at risk from asbestos-related disease were those who worked with asbestos in the 20th century, primarily men in the construction trades, miners, millers, auto mechanics, and ship builders. But today the toll is broadening out. As sure as our unchecked proliferation of guns haunts us with school shootings and teen carnage among the poor, the failure to ban asbestos has resulted in widespread and potentially deadly chronic risks that reach down to our youngest citizens and their teachers.
First Responders, Maintenance Workers, Women
The first mesothelioma deaths have now occurred among 9/11 first responders who worked in toxic clouds at Ground Zero after the collapse and fires of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 2001. Also, a 2017 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that exposure continues today to workers involved in the maintenance, demolition, and remediation of buildings with asbestos. "Contrary to past projections, the number of malignant mesothelioma deaths has been increasing," the report said.
In 2018, the New York Times obtained memos under the Freedom of Information Act that exposed that officials at Johnson & Johnson were aware in the 1970s that the company's iconic baby powder talc could be contaminated with asbestos and yet worked to discredit or silence research that suggested contamination. Two years ago, a St. Louis jury awarded $4.7 billion to 22 women who claimed their ovarian cancer was caused by the baby powder, often used as a feminine hygiene product. Five months ago, Johnson & Johnson recalled 33,000 bottles of baby powder after the Food and Drug Administration found trace amounts of asbestos in samples.
Will we soon be adding children and teachers to the toll? Nowhere in America is the wholesale disintegration of asbestos installed decades ago as evident as in the nation's schools.
The Threat to Schoolchildren
The UCS report notes that school buildings built from 1946 to 1972 likely contain asbestos, with the highest proportion of unacceptable structures being found in low-income communities and districts where most students are of color. All of that is on unconscionable display in Philadelphia where the teachers' union is suing the city's school board for hazardous levels of asbestos dust in decrepit buildings.
In 2018, the Philadelphia Inquirer conducted an investigation of many schools, finding levels of asbestos dust on school surfaces 11 to 1,700 times higher than the levels mandated by federal cleanup requirements for apartments near Ground Zero. The newspaper also found unacceptably elevated levels of lead.
By spring of 2019, when the Inquirer was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for its exposé, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced more than $100 million in emergency lead cleanup and general hazardous cleanup funds for Philadelphia schools. Last month, Wolf proposed $1 billion for statewide remediation of asbestos and lead in schools.
But that could not contain the crisis in a system with $4.5 billion of documented deficiencies in its school buildings. This school year, seven schools have been closed for extensive asbestos damage. One teacher, who worked in a 90-year-old building and often swept up dust from flaking heating pipe insulation and busted ceiling tiles before class, is undergoing chemotherapy for mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer triggered by asbestos.
In at least one school closure, the stench of race and class environmental injustice was on vivid display. Ben Franklin High School, comprised almost entirely of youth of color who qualify as poor, was not closed until after it also became the home of a magnet school that is 38 percent white, with half of those students above the poverty line. As Ben Franklin teacher told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "When it was us, the district didn't feel like they needed to have any immediacy."
The lack of immediacy has existed for decades. Jerry Roseman, chief environmental science and public health expert since 1985 for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said it galls him that his sense of outrage and disbelief in school conditions is the same today as it was 35 years ago. In an interview with the Union of Concerned Scientists, he said he had just inspected an overcrowded school where playful children were literally banging into damaged asbestos pipe insulation, damaging the asbestos even more, calling it a systemic failure including school district leadership and politicians.
"What is clear across the country is that school boards neither understand facility conditions and leave them alone to deteriorate and definitely don't understand the impacts on the health, safety, and welfare of children and staff," Roseman said. He noted how parents and teachers are taking things into their own hands with a mobile app to photograph and report disintegrating infrastructure. "You can have great teachers and great principals," he added, "but you do not get great or safe education if you do not take care of a foundational need—the facility."
Nationally, the threat of toxic school buildings has barely been studied despite the 1986 Asbestos Hazardous Emergency Response Act (AHERA) to address airborne asbestos in schools. A 2015 report commissioned by senators Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California found that two-thirds of the school districts in 15 responding states had asbestos. Thirty states did not respond to the inquiry at all. Noting that the Environmental Protection Agency had not seriously analyzed school asbestos since 1984, the Markey-Boxer report said the carcinogen remains "ubiquitous" in schools, with the extent "unknown."
The EPA, under flat funding for most of the last decade, conducts so few inspections under AHERA that a 2018 Inspector General report said, "The EPA has not documented that the risk of asbestos exposure in schools has diminished significantly under AHERA."
Reinvestment, Then Divestment Again
President Obama worked with Congress to try to strengthen scrutiny of toxics like asbestos with the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act. But, when it comes to asbestos, the Trump administration attempted to gut the act by trying to exclude asbestos already installed in places like schools ("legacy use") from calculations of risk assessment. Never mind that the White House understands quite well that asbestos is a major health threat. Last summer it conducted $250,000 asbestos abatement in the West Wing office areas occupied by President Trump's daughter Ivanka, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, policy adviser Stephen Miller, and economic adviser Larry Kudlow.
Environmental groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, joined with labor unions and family advocacy groups to challenge the EPA and a host of chemical industry groups and the US Chamber of Commerce in court. In November, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declared the administration's attempt to exclude legacy use was unlawful, agreeing that workers face major risks when "equipment or structures are demolished, repaired, or refurbished."
That ruling, combined with a science-minded federal government, should easily be applied to children who currently go to schools that should have long ago been demolished, repaired, or refurbished. As it is now, Linda Reinstein, co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, which was a co-petitioner against the EPA's attack on legacy use, says America is rolling the dice by letting children study and play in asbestos dust. As Reinstein notes, health effects will not manifest themselves until these children are well into adulthood and long since removed from the source school of their disease. Reinstein lost her husband Alan to mesothelioma and an asbestos ban bill has been filed in Congress in his name.
"Even though the latency period is long, I've seen parents tearful and terrified," Reinstein told UCS, "worried that every cough is a precursor of something worse about to happen. If you're a student and you know you've been exposed, you lie with the fear the rest of your life that you've been exposed to something that is life changing. . .The fact that we haven't been studying legacy exposure should be a crime."
In 1984, the EPA found that, of the 2,600 schools testing positive for asbestos in its sample, only 500 had a plan to deal with it. Today, the Trump administration is trying to avoid testing for legacy installations altogether, in the obvious effort not to be responsible for a remediation plan. That effort was ruled illegal, but given the spiteful nature of this administration, it is more likely to respond by dragging its feet rather than leaping to protect children. That leaves the time bomb ticking, with the risk of asbestos exposure today exploding in the lungs of today's children tomorrow.
For more on this and other threats to children's health, including what you can do about them, you can read the new UCS storybook — Breath in the Smog, Drink in the Lead: A Grim Scary Tale for People Who Care about Kids — and its accompanying resource guide and report, Endangering Generations: How the Trump Administration's Assault on Science is Harming Children's Health.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a UCS Fellow in climate and energy and the Center for Science and Democracy. He is an award-winning journalist and co-author and photographer of Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock, published by Yale University Press (2015).
Reposted with permission from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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It's going to be back-to-school time soon, but will children go into the classrooms?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks so, but only as long as safety measures are in place.
Keeping Schools Safe<p>What will safer schools look like?</p><p>In a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2766822" target="_blank">JAMA article</a> published last month, <a href="https://www.jhsph.edu/faculty/directory/profile/1781/joshua-m-sharfstein" target="_blank">Dr. Joshua Sharfstein</a>, a pediatrician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, outlined suggestions — many of which are similar to AAP's.</p><p>Remote learning protocols must stay in place, especially as some schools stagger home and in-building learning. If another shutdown needs to occur, children will rely on distance learning completely, so it must be easy to switch to, he said.</p><p>He suggested giving parents a daily checklist to document their child's health. Kids should be screened quickly on arrival and be given hygiene supplies. Maintenance staff should use appropriate PPE and have regular cleaning schedules. A notification system should be in place if a case is identified, Sharfstein recommended.</p><p><a href="https://www.albany.edu/rockefeller/faculty/erika-martin" target="_blank">Erika Martin</a>, PhD, an associate professor of public administration and policy at University at Albany, said nutrition assistance and health services should be included. She called for tutoring programs with virtual options as well as technology access.</p>
Supporting Staff<p>Teachers and staff will be affected by safeguarding measures, noted <a href="https://directory.sph.umn.edu/bio/sph-a-z/rachel-widome" target="_blank">Rachel Widome</a>, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at University of Minnesota.</p><p>"In order for all of the in-school precautions to work well, we'll be asking a lot of teachers and staff," Widome told Healthline. In addition to their usual workload, they'll now be asked to monitor mask-wearing, ensure children are keeping distance, and be aware of any symptoms.</p><p>Along with Sharfstein, Widome called for an increase in financial support. More employees will likely be required so teachers and staff members can keep up with the added demands.</p>
Should Kids Go Back?<p>While these guidelines may help get some schools to reopen, many people don't think children should go back to school over fears they could contract the disease and spread it to other vulnerable family members like grandparents, infant siblings, or their parents.</p><p>In a <a href="https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2020/07/08/peds.2020-004879" target="_blank">Pediatrics</a> commentary, <a href="https://www.md.com/doctor/william-raszka-md" target="_blank">Dr. William V. Raszka, Jr.</a>, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Vermont Medical Center, argued that schools should open because school-aged children are far less important drivers of COVID-19 than adults.</p><p>But he says the risk and benefit is not equal among all students ages 5 to 18.</p><p>"Elementary schools are arguably higher priority for face-to-face schooling, since younger children are at lower risk for infection and transmission, and since parental supervision of younger children's distance learning may be particularly challenging," added Sorensen, who penned a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2767411" target="_blank">June article in JAMA</a> with reopening tips. "That means middle and high schools are more likely to emphasize distance learning."</p><p>Specific student populations, such as special education students and students with disabilities, would also benefit greatly from more time spent in face-to-face environments, Sorensen said.</p>
What Parents Can Do<p>Parents should ask for and receive frequent updates from schools about plans for the fall. They should also be informed about plans if and when COVID infections are identified, Sharfstein said.</p><p>"I'd like to see parents investing now, during the summer, in doing things that can slow and stop the spread of the virus in their communities," Widome said.</p><p>"Now is a good time for kids to practice wearing masks and get used to them as they may be wearing them for longer stretches if school starts up in person," Widome suggested.</p><p>She recommends parents try different mask designs and materials to see what children are more comfortable wearing.</p><p>"If you are using cloth face coverings, it's good to have extras on hand," Widome added.</p><p>Parents should model healthy behavior at home and while out in public — another thing that could affect how well children adapt to reopening practices, Sorensen said.</p><p>"Children may want to know more about face coverings," added <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/leescott/" target="_blank">Lee Scott</a>, chairwoman of the Educational Advisory Board at <a href="https://www.goddardschool.com/" target="_blank">The Goddard School</a>. "Dramatic play, such as creating or wearing a face covering, may help some children adjust to this concept." Schools can also show children photos of what faculty members look like in their masks so the students are familiar with that appearance.</p><p>Johns Hopkins University recently released its eSchool+ Initiative, a slew of resources surrounding education during the pandemic. These include a <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-checklist/" target="_blank">checklist for administrators</a>, report on <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/ethics-of-reopening/" target="_blank">ethical considerations</a>, and a tracker of <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-policy-tracker/" target="_blank">state and local reopening plans</a>.</p>
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