AG Healey Announces New Initiative to Better Protect the Public from Dangers of Asbestos Exposure
“Healthy Buildings, Healthy Air” Initiative Includes Education Effort in School Districts and Statewide Enforcement Actions
BOSTON — In an effort to better protect the health of children, families, and workers in Massachusetts from health risks posed by asbestos, Attorney General Maura Healey today announced her office is launching a new initiative called “Healthy Buildings, Healthy Air.”
AG Healey’s new initiative will focus on educating those with a greater risk of asbestos exposure, including children, the elderly and low-income families, and protecting them from the dangers of asbestos – a known carcinogen that is responsible for about 12,000 to 15,000 deaths in the United States each year. The Healthy Buildings, Healthy Air initiative has a multi-faceted approach that includes partnering state agencies and school districts to ensure safe asbestos practices in schools and ramping up enforcement of unsafe and illegal asbestos work by landlords, property owners and contractors.
“Asbestos can be found in many homes, schools, and workplaces, and if it is not handled properly it poses a serious health risk,” AG Healey said. “Too often, children, families, and workers are exposed to airborne asbestos fibers due to shoddy or unlicensed work, and many aren’t aware of the serious danger it poses. Our new initiative will focus on educating school districts on the dangers asbestos exposure can pose to children and employees and on taking action against those who put families and workers at risk from illegal asbestos work.”
Asbestos is a mineral fiber that is used in a wide variety of building materials, from roofing and flooring, to siding and wallboard, to caulking and insulation. If asbestos is improperly handled or maintained, fibers can be released into the air and inhaled, potentially resulting in life-threatening illnesses, including asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. Asbestosis is a serious, progressive, long-term non-cancer disease of the lungs for which there is no known effective treatment. Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that is found in the thin membranes of the lung, chest, abdomen, and heart, that may not show up until many years after exposure, and that has no known cure, although treatment methods are available to address the effects of the disease.
ASBESTOS EDUCATION IN SCHOOLS
In December 2015, U.S. Sen. Edward Markey’s office issued a report, Failing the Grade: Asbestos in America’s Schools, highlighting that the extent to which asbestos is still present in our schools remains largely unknown. The report found that about two-thirds of the districts in the 15 states which responded to a survey conducted by Sen. Markey and then Sen. Barbara Boxer have identified asbestos in their schools, but less than eight percent of those districts are subject to periodic inspections.
“We know too little about current asbestos hazards in our schools, workplaces and other buildings, and what we do know indicates we have a widespread problem in addressing this toxic threat,” said Sen. Edward Markey. “We cannot let lack of awareness put families, workers, students and teachers at risk of asbestos exposure. We need to arm consumers with information about where asbestos can be found so they can avoid exposure, and create a more systemic and dedicated commitment to removing it from our neighborhoods, especially local schools.”
In recognition of the concerns raised in the report, the AG’s Office is partnering with the Department of Labor Standards (DLS), the Massachusetts School Building Authority, the Massachusetts Facility Administrators’ Association, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, and the Massachusetts Association of School Building Officials to educate schools about the dangers asbestos exposure poses to children and school employees. The organizations recently held a roundtable to discuss the issues surrounding asbestos exposure and legal compliance in schools and the importance of a collaborative approach with local education authorities.
The AG’s Office and the organizations are jointly reaching out to school systems across the state to gather the information needed to comprehensively assess the current state of asbestos in schools in Massachusetts to increase awareness of responsibilities under the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) – the federal law regulating asbestos in schools – and to ensure the highest levels of safety for our students and school faculty and staff. As part of the outreach, the AG’s Office and the organizations will be working with the schools to help them comply with state and federal law and ensure that school districts have an opportunity to communicate with the state regarding any asbestos issues or concerns they may have.
ENFORCEMENT OF ASBESTOS SAFETY LAWS
Every year, in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) and DLS, the AG’s Environmental Protection Division prosecutes property owners and contractors who fail to take the precautions required by law to keep workers, residents, and the public safe from the risks of asbestos exposure.
“Asbestos is a pervasive issue in Massachusetts that DLS strives to protect the public from on a daily basis,” said DLS Director William McKinney. “While many people hear about asbestos and think it is something that was solved in the 1980s and 1990s, the dangers of exposure in places like schools, the home, and the workplace persist. DLS continues to work with parents and guardians about the asbestos management plan for their schools. We remain vigilant in ensuring that contractors, tradesman, and home improvement specialists are aware of what to look for while on renovation and construction projects to prevent asbestos exposure.”
From its investigations, the AG’s Office has found that those who are most at risk for asbestos exposure are those living in lower-income and environmental justice communities, the people who are least able to protect themselves from asbestos exposure and who already face a greater risk of exposure to pollution and other toxic materials.
In an effort to respond to the dangers posed to children and those living in environmental justice communities, the AG’s Office is prioritizing enforcement cases concerning asbestos violations involving residents and workers in those communities, school students and faculty, and other at-risk populations.
In December 2016, the AG’s Office filed a lawsuit against a Lawrence asbestos abatement company, alleging a pattern of asbestos regulation violations by workers while they were conducting abatement work at Greater Lowell Technical High School in Tyngsborough during 2014 and 2015.
The complaint, filed in Suffolk Superior Court, alleges that R.M. Technologies, Inc.’s workers failed to clean and secure their work area properly, used improper abatement methods, conducted asbestos work without supervision by the project monitor, and left pieces of unsecured asbestos debris behind after completing work.
This new enforcement focus under the initiative continues the significant headway the AG’s Environmental Protection Division made in combatting illegal asbestos removal during 2016. In March, four Worcester-area companies settled allegations that their workers illegally handled and stored asbestos-containing material during demolition projects in Sturbridge and Somerset. In April, the AG’s Office reached an agreement with a home improvement contractor over allegations that he illegally and unsafely removed asbestos-containing shingles from the exterior of a home in a densely populated environmental justice neighborhood in Ayer. And in September, a New Bedford landlord agreed to pay up to $100,000 in civil penalties and conduct asbestos inspections in 20 of his residential buildings to settle claims of illegal asbestos work in New Bedford.
For more information on asbestos and asbestos-related work, visit MassDEP’s website outlining asbestos construction and demolition notification requirements and DLS’s website reviewing asbestos regulations in the workplace.
To report violations of asbestos regulations, call MassDEP at 1-888-304-1133 or DLS at (617) 626-6960.