Schools fail to keep track of asbestos
Without sealing off the area, contractors used ice scrapers to remove the tiled floor of three classrooms, loaded the splintered remains into a wheelbarrow, and carted them through hallways to the dumpster behind the school, where the dusty refuse remained for more than a month.
Only weeks later did officials at the McCloskey Middle School in Uxbridge realize that the tiles contained asbestos, toxic minerals that can cause cancer when inhaled.
It was the kind of worst-case outcome — the contamination of a building used by hundreds of children each day — that Congress sought to prevent when it passed a law requiring schools to conduct routine inspections of areas with asbestos, provide special training to custodians and other school staff, and follow strict procedures when removing the fibrous material.
Nearly 30 years later, the state recently revealed, schools in Massachusetts appear to be ignoring the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act and the state is doing little to enforce it, setting aside only enough money to conduct 40 inspections a year.
As a result, state and federal officials say they have no idea how many schools are complying with the law. State officials don't even know how many schools in Massachusetts still harbor asbestos, which was used as a fire retardant and for insulation until the early 1970s. The long-term effects of exposure to asbestos are estimated to kill 10,000 Americans a year, according to federal studies. Still, it is often left in buildings, because removing it can be expensive and generate dangerous amounts of dust.
Last spring, in response to a federal inquiry into the extent of asbestos in the nation's schools, state officials surveyed Massachusetts' 2,500 public, private, and charter schools. Of the 1,054 that responded, 30 percent reported still having asbestos-containing materials.
But the state never heard back from 1,446 schools, meaning the state doesn't know whether they still have asbestos, whether school officials are aware of it, or whether they continue to monitor it.
Even with limited resources for inspections, state officials, responding to the federal inquiry, said they "frequently discover" noncompliance with the law.
Over the past seven years, they said, their investigators issued violations to 41 percent of the 280 schools they had inspected.
"This is concerning," said Brian T. Wong, chief of investigations and enforcement at the state Department of Labor Standards, which oversees compliance with asbestos laws in Massachusetts. "From what we see, the schools certainly aren't doing all that they should."
The concerns about the state's schools arose from an investigation led by US Senators Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat. Their report, "Failing the Grade: Asbestos in America's Schools," found that state officials around the country know little about the extent of asbestos in their schools and called their efforts to monitor or remove the hazards "woefully insufficient."
The report, to be released today , found that two-thirds of the districts in the 20 states that responded to the survey had schools containing asbestos. It also found that fewer than 8 percent of schools in those 3,690 districts are regularly inspected.
Moreover, the majority of states that responded don't track the number of complaints they receive about alleged violations of the asbestos law.
"When it comes to asbestos in our schools, we know too little, but what we do know indicates we have a widespread problem in addressing this toxic threat, both in Massachusetts and across the country," said Markey, who has proposed legislation to increase the availability of information about buildings that contain asbestos. "Decades of inaction have put students and teachers at risk of asbestos exposure."
The limited number of inspections for asbestos in Massachusetts is the result of declining federal and state funding, which over the past six years has dropped more than 20 percent to less than $300,000 a year.
The US Environmental Protection Agency used to reimburse schools for the costs of conducting inspections and developing management plans. But it no longer does and the loss of funding, Wong said, has meant schools are increasingly noncompliant.
"When faced with declining school budgets, teacher layoffs, and program cuts, compliance with [the asbestos law] was not their priority," he said.
His department has been unable to compensate. "In an ideal world, if we could, we would inspect every school for asbestos," he said.
Officials at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education declined to answer questions about the state's oversight of asbestos in schools.
But in a statement, Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the department, placed the blame on the schools. "Maintenance issues, such as the presence of asbestos, are the responsibility of local officials," she said.
Over the past five years, state officials have cited 46 schools in Massachusetts for violating the law.
Of those, four, including the McCloskey School in Uxbridge, reported incidents involving the dispersal of asbestos fibers. The state fined each of them for the toxic release, which resulted in officials closing parts of the schools, emergency decontamination procedures, and possible exposure.
Officials at Uxbridge Public Schools said they were "deeply concerned" by the lack of oversight that led to the asbestos release at the McCloskey School, which cost the district about $30,000 to contain and repair, including a state fine of $12,000.
"It was certainly an eye-opening experience," said Kevin Carney, the district's superintendent.
He said there have been no known illnesses as a result of the incident, though he acknowledged it could take years for symptoms to develop. Exposure to even microscopic amounts of asbestos can be carcinogenic.
He also said the employee responsible for overseeing maintenance is "no longer working at the school."
"Corrective actions were taken so things like this are prevented in the future," he said. "We take the health of our students and staff very seriously."
Elsewhere, state officials cited the Hadley Elementary School in Swampscott for 18 violations of the law, after officials there failed to notify a plumber repairing a roof drainage system about the location of asbestos.
The work sent contaminated plaster from a water-damaged ceiling into four classrooms, forcing the school to close briefly.
In Harwich, state officials cited the Cape Cod Regional Technical High School for 11 violations after students and a teacher three years ago used shovels to chip apart hundreds of feet of the contaminated floor of a building on school property.
And after an inspection of the Gates Intermediate School in Scituate, where state officials had previously raised concerns about asbestos, they cited the school for 23 violations in 2012, including failing to properly train their staff to conduct inspections of asbestos or appoint someone to oversee the district's compliance with the law.
Since then, officials in Scituate have hired a new contractor to monitor their schools' asbestos and spent tens of thousands of dollars on training and repairs.
"This is a problem that many schools aren't taking seriously enough," said John McCarthy, superintendent of Scituate Public Schools. "Unfortunately, a lot of this comes down to money."
He said he was glad the Gates School had been inspected.
"We were potentially putting our staff at risk," he said. "I would certainly be in favor of more of these inspections."