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Asbestos is most frequently found in schools in plaster, spray-on insulation, insulation on pipes and boilers, and floor and ceiling tiles.
Asbestos is a mineral with long, strong, flexible, threadlike fibers that are relatively indestructible, heat resistant and chemically stable. These properties led it to be used in more than 3,000 different products, but particularly in insulation and fireproofing. An estimated 3.5 million tons were installed in schools and public buildings before being banned in New York City in 1970. If asbestos fibers are firmly bonded or compacted within other material — such as a plaster wall — it’s considered relatively safe. If water damage, abrasion or sloppy repair work occurs, microscopic fibers can be released into the air where it can be inhaled, swallowed or attached to clothing. This form of asbestos — called “friable” — poses the greatest health risk. Asbestos is tasteless and odorless.
There are no immediate health effects from exposure to asbestos. Asbestos does not cause allergies, headaches, burning eyes, sore throat or skin problems. When inhaled in high concentrations (or ingested), asbestos (a carcinogen) poses a potential health concern. Most people with asbestos-related disease were routinely exposed to high levels of airborne asbestos in the workplace.
The precise risk of disease from low-level, short-term exposure to asbestos is unknown. There is no scientific evidence that casual exposure to asbestos — such as the amounts typically found in schools — will cause a problem.
When breathed, microscopic asbestos fibers can lodge in the lungs and other internal organs. Because of their strength and chemical stability, the body cannot break them down. Some people who have had prolonged, heavy exposure to large amounts of asbestos — most famously asbestos miners and World War II shipbuilders — may develop rare and potentially fatal lung diseases. There is no evidence that classroom personnel have ever contacted these diseases. However, the UFT insists on the remote possibility of asbestos hazards and demands a clean-up whenever there is damage to asbestos-containing materials in school.
Every school should have been inspected to identify any areas containing asbestos and findings summarized in the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) report. The AHERA report includes information about where asbestos-containing materials are located in your school building and this report must be on-site. If you see that an area of your school has deteriorated you can check the AHERA report or discuss this with the custodian and see if the area poses an asbestos hazard. In addition please report this condition to the union. For example report damaged plaster because there may be a more serious exposure situation; the plaster may contain asbestos, the paint may contain lead and/or there may be mold if the damage is due to water leaks, moisture or water infiltration.
The UFT fought for and won a state law that will protect you in the future. If at some point you become ill — and believe it to be school asbestos-related — you may file suit.
When the union has determined that a school posed an asbestos health threat, we have forced the school to close until the asbestos was cleaned up. The UFT will not allow children or adults into a building that poses a health threat.