The Environmental Protection Agency has been slacking when it comes to monitoring asbestos in schools. It did such a poor job between 2011 and 2015 that even its Office of Inspector General can’t protect its image.
The inspector general’s office published a report Monday breaking down how badly the EPA has failed our children: The agency conducted only 13 percent of the inspections at public, private, and nonprofit schools that are required under the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act from fiscal years 2011 to 2015. For comparison, the 21 states that handle this responsibility themselves conducted 87 percent of the required inspections.
Asbestos is nothing to take lightly. This fibrous material, once hailed for its heat resistance, can cause lung issues when inhaled—including cancer. This hasn’t really been seen in children, but the risk for mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer exclusive to asbestos exposure, increases the more time that passes after a person’s first been exposed. That’s why asbestos in schools is a Big Deal—and why advocates want to see the EPA ban the toxic substance outright, instead of spending more time analyzing where it can and cannot be used, as the agency announced back in June.
None of that, however, addresses the asbestos that continues to exist in buildings from prior uses. That’s what’s of concern in these schools. A major problem, the office found, is that not all schools maintained an asbestos management plan. Neither did entire regions, which are failing at larger-scale asbestos compliance related to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
Now, the office is suggesting that the EPA require all school districts to develop a plan and all regions to more explicitly include asbestos in their TSCA compliance efforts. But the issue here is, well, money. That’s what the agency blamed for its inadequate efforts, per the report. And keep in mind: These issues were happening under former President Barack Obama. The agency has faced far more extreme budget cuts under President Donald Trump and his goonies.
“The previous administration did not do enough to provide adequate protections to children from asbestos exposure,” said EPA spokesman Michael Abboud in an emailed statement to Earther. “The Trump administration is taking proactive steps to reduce asbestos exposure, which includes a new proposed regulation that, for the first time, would prohibit the currently unregulated former uses of asbestos.”
While the administration’s review of asbestos should, in theory, prohibit current unregulated uses, opponents worry that this will be another way to sneak more uses into the market. We don’t really know yet how the review process will play out—but we do know that right now, 50 million students and 7 million teachers are at risk of asbestos exposure. This comes just a few months after a separate federal office found that states are failing to monitor lead exposure in U.S. schools.
Our children require urgent attention—and government action. That, however, feels unlikely in a time when the EPA is low on resources and regulation.