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Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA)

The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) of 1986 (H.R. 5073) was introduced by Congress in spring 1986 to "provide for the establishment of Federal regulations which require inspection for asbestos-containing material and the implementation of appropriate response actions...in the Nation's schools in a safe and complete manner". 

Since the mid 20th century, plenty of information derived from scientific and medical studies, have shown undisputedly the hazards associated with asbestos.  Asbestos is friable, meaning that it can be broken down into powder using hand pressure.  When it is broken down, microscopic asbestos fibers are released into the air.  Asbestos becomes hazardous when these fibers are inhaled to enter the body.  Prolonged exposure to asbestos can lead to serious diseases such as asbestosis, increased incidences of lung and gastrointestinal cancer, and mesothelioma, a cancer of the outer lining of the lungs that is directly caused by asbestos. 

Asbestos is the name given to a number of naturally occurring fibrous metamorphic minerals that are mined and harvested for their valuable properties such as thermal insulation, chemical and thermal stability, and high tensile strength.  Over the last century, about 30 million tons of asbestos have been used in the United States in an estimated 3,000 products.  Asbestos is mainly known by many for its use in construction materials, mainly for buildings.  

Asbestos is added to a variety of building products to strengthen them and to provide heat insulation and fire resistance.  Such asbestos-containing building materials include fireproofing material, which are applied onto wooden beams; insulation material (i.e. on pipes); acoustical or soundproofing material, where asbestos is applied onto ceilings and walls; and in other miscellaneous materials such as asphalt, vinyl, and cement to make products like roofing felts, shingles, siding, wallboard, and floor tiles.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a division of the United States government, has been focusing on the disease-causing potential of asbestos exposure since the 1970s.  Since the majority of buildings constructed in the nation at the time had used asbestos, considerable attention was paid to high-activity public buildings such as schools.  The asbestos in these buildings could present an opportunity for inadvertent disturbance and potential for exposure.  The probability of danger increases due to repair and maintenance work that could disturb the integrity of the asbestos, thereby creating a hazardous environment.  According to a 1984 EPA survey, approximately 34,800 schools were believed to have friable asbestos-containing materials, potentially exposing an estimated 15 million students and 1.4 million school employees. 

To address this concern, the EPA introduced the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, which was passed by Congress, and signed into law by then-president, Ronald Reagan, in 1986.  The AHERA gave the EPA the mandate to develop a regulatory framework that required schools to inspect their buildings for asbestos, and to take appropriate abatement actions using qualified, accredited persons for inspection and abatement.

AHERA requires schools (public, private, primary and secondary schools) to inspect their buildings for asbestos-containing building materials.  Additionally, schools must prepare a management plan which recommends the best way to reduce the hazards from any asbestos that are present.  Options given to reduce asbestos hazards include repairing damaged asbestos containing material, spraying it with sealants, enclosing it, removing it, or keeping it in good condition so that it does not release fibers. 

The asbestos management plans must be developed by accredited management planners and approved by the State within six months of the original inspection.  The school authority must notify parent, teacher and employer organizations of the plans, and then the plans must be implemented.  An inspection must be performed every three years as periodic surveillance of the present asbestos.  

A summary of the major components of the management plan as required by the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986 is given:

  • Perform an original inspection and periodic re-inspections every 3 years for asbestos containing material. 
  • Provide circumstances that require response actions (abatement activity).  For example, provide proper training for custodial staff. 
  • Appropriate response actions
  • Implementation of response actions
  • Operations and maintenance programs
  • Periodic surveillance of asbestos
  • Transport and disposal