The White House and schools have this in common: Asbestos

The White House and schools have this in common: Asbestos
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What do the White House and schools across the United States have in common? Shockingly, the answer is asbestos. 

Over the past few weeks, dozens of senior White House staff including Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Miller, and Larry Kudlow had to move out of their offices so the hazardous cancer-causing mineral could be removed. The government says the work should be done by the end of the month

But for millions of parents across the country, worries about asbestos won’t be resolved so quickly. They can find the hidden hazard lurking within some supplies in their children's’ backpacks and their school buildings themselves.

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In 2018, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Consumer Watchdog team discovered that Playskool crayons sold at Dollar Tree contained asbestos. Given that U.S. PIRG only tested a small sample of of school supplies, it’s possible others contain this dangerous carcinogen, too. 

Asbestos is in a lot more things than you’d think. Earlier in 2018, U.S. PIRG found that three different children’s makeup products sold by the national retail brand Claire’s contained alarming amounts of asbestos. In 2007, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), found evidence of asbestos in a startling array of household products, including toys, window glazing, spackling paste, roof patch, and duct tape.

Even given that list, parents have more to worry about than school supplies and things around their homes. Like the White House, the buildings students spend 30-40 hours a week in may also be contaminated. Many of the 131,000 public and private school facilities nationwide were constructed in the 20th century, when builders used asbestos regularly. That toxic legacy plagues students and teachers to this day — and school districts are trying to remedy it on a regular basis. 

For example, in 2014, Ocean View School District in Orange County, California, shut down three schools after parents became concerned that kids could be exposed to asbestos on the campuses. And last year in Philadelphia, an investigation uncovered asbestos in seven elementary schools, including one where fibers lay exposed on the floor of a sixth grade classroom after a failed cleanup. 

Regardless of the initial source of asbestos, the carcinogen poses a greater health risk to children because they spend more time on the floor where asbestos fibers can accumulate and their bodies are still developing.

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Our children would be safer from asbestos if the EPA had successfully banned asbestos in 1989. But two years later, the asbestos-industry challenged and successfully overturned the EPA’s ban. With no federal ban on asbestos in place, these fibers have been lying dormant in buildings that American children spend their days in and in some school supplies they continue to use.

While a complete ban failed, the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) mandates that the EPA is supposed to inspect, manage and respond to asbestos-containing material found in elementary or secondary schools. However, in September 2018, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) reported that the Agency severely neglected its responsibility

Decades after we realized how dangerous it is, asbestos is responsible for nearly 40,000 American deaths every year. Just as asbestos has no place in the White House, it has no place where children learn and play, or in the supplies they use on a daily basis. But since parents can’t individually test each item or every classroom, they are left at the mercy of a system that has failed to rid the country of this health threat.

Since 1989, nearly 70 other countries have banned asbestos, while in America, more than one million people have died from preventable asbestos-caused diseases and an estimated 375,000 metric tons of asbestos has been imported into the country — the equivalent of 75,000 elephants. 

That could change this fall as Congress considers the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act, which would ban asbestos imports and use, without loopholes or exemptions. The legislation would also require a comprehensive study of risks presented by asbestos where it was used in building construction decades ago, including schools. 

With the support of more than 50 co-sponsors, the endorsement of 18 attorneys general from around the nation, and the affirmation of 15 public health organizations, the bill is gaining significant momentum. 

This bill could make a big difference in the future health of America’s children. Congress should seize the chance to ensure that when kids head back to school in the future, parents only have to worry about their education and the friendships they are making — not asbestos poisoning their growing bodies. 

Adam Garber is U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Consumer Watchdog. He works to protect everyone from being exposed to dangerous products, unfair practices or risky policies. 

Linda Reinstein is the president and co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO). Recognized as a leader in prevention and policy, Reinstein works nationally and internationally to eliminate asbestos-caused diseases.