The asbestos by jennyyingdi


									                                                                                                   closed its public schools for two weeks
      SCIENCE:-& SOCIE'1':Y' .                                                                     and spent $83 million on asbestos rein-
                                                                                                   spection and removal because earlier as-
                                                                                                   bestos inspections were shoddy . Total
                                                                                                   spending nationwide has been $10 bil-

      The asbestos                                                                                 lion, the National School Boards Associ-
                                                                                                   ation told Congress earlier this month .
                                                                                                   Experts say it could reach $30 billion .
                                                                                                      Much of the money, though, is proba-
                                                                                                   bly being spent in vain . There is no telling
                                                                                                   how much of the cleanup might have

      panic attack                                                                                 been necessary . No one has ever deter-
                                                                                                   mined how much asbestos in the air is
                                                                                                   unsafe, and there is
                                                                                                   now broad consen-
                                                                                                   sus among scien-         Us"S:NEWS
      How the feds got schools to spend billions on
      a problem that really didn't amount to much
                                                                                                   tists and physicians
                                                                                                   that asbestos in
                                                                                                   public buildings is
                                                                                                                            CEiPjO' R: T
                                                                                                   not much of a
                                                                                                   threat to health "A
                hen school custodians in Oak-          The reason for all the elaborate pre-       phantom risk" is what Richard Wilson, a

      W         land County, Mich ., want to fix
                a leaky water valve, they don
      head-to-toe. spacesuits . "They make you
                                                    cautions: asbestos . A tough, heat-resis-
                                                    tant mineral fiber associated with lung
                                                    disease, asbestos has long had the repu-
                                                                                                   physics professor at Harvard University,
                                                                                                   calls it. A study soon to be released by the
                                                                                                   federal Office of Technology Assess-
      sweat like a pig," says facilities consul-    tation of a workplace hit man . The repu-      ment will say much the same thing . .
      tant Bill Lee. Then, they test the air near   tation has cost plenty. Across the nation,       Paper-thin evidence . How America's
      the leaky valve . Next, they wet the insu-    school districts that can't buy new library    money-strapped schools could have so
      lation surrounding the pipe, chip it off,     books are spending hundreds of thou-           overreacted to the perceived threat from
      seal it in a bag, seal that in another bag,   sands of dollars to. deal with asbestos        asbestos is an illuminating tale . One
      then check the air again . Only after that    because they mistakenly believe their          part, at least, is understandable : Parents
      can they strip off their spacesuits and       children are in great danger. In the fall      and teachers pressed for drastic reme-
      actually replace the offending valve.         of 1993, for instance, New York City           dies for something they were told was a

      qeanup. Many school districts like the one in New York City had costly asbestos-taneoval drives . No one is sure now if it was worth Lt

      u3xEws & woau, EEPOKr. FEBUllARY za,l9ss                               . . ..   ..      ..   .                  61                           1
                 ∎ SCIENCE & SOCIETY
                 real danger . Less understand-
                  able is the role of government
                 agencies, especially the federal
                 Environmental Protection
                 Agency, which created a public
                 panic on the basis of paper-
                 thin scientific information .
                    It's also a story about how
                 the instinct to act overwhelms
                 common sense. "When every-
                 body's shouting `Fire!' in a the-
                 ater, the man who quietly
                 stands in the corner and says,
                 'There's no fire,' is rarely heed-
                 ed," observes Arthur Langer,
                 director of the Environmental
                 Sciences Laboratory at Brook-
                 lyn College in New York, who
                 has served on numerous asbes-
                 tos-study panels . Langer recalls
                 sitting with other experts in the
                 mid-1980s to draft EPA asbes-
                 tos rules. The documents used
                 terms like "hazard" and "emer-
                 gency." "I said, 'Let's change
        i         the language of this; we are us- Voice of    reason . Prof. Arthur Langer kept trying to warn policy makers they were overreacting.
                  ing emotive words,'" Langer
                  said . "They just blew me out ." John        seen a high coincidence between smok-                  issued its Blue Book, which said much
                  Welch, president of an association of for-   ing and asbestos-linked lung cancer .                  the same thing : Removal was "always
                  mer manufacturers of asbestos products,      More important, the risk of all these dis-             appropriate, never inappropriate ."
                  told an EPA panel in 1984 that since         eases seemed to be tied to the exposure                  Joseph Breen, an EPA official who
                  asbestos was present in the air every-       level . How much was,too much?                         worked on the Orange Book, recalls,
                 where, the EPA should set standards for          To help local officials, EPA published              "There was a cry to get something out,
                  levels deemed permissible . "They didn't     a"guidance" book in 1979 . It had a                    and the best available information was
                 want to hear it," he says ."'No safe level'   bright-orange cover and was known                      what had been done to date ." Unfortu-
                 was the foundation of their arguments ."      thereafter as the Orange Book. But in-                 nately, at the time, little work had been
                    First warning. The saga began in the       stead of declaring what levels of airborne             done on the health effects of low levels
                 1950s when a brilliant, energetic physi-      asbestos were safe or unsafe for children,             of asbestos in schoolroom air.
                 cian named Irving Selikoff documented         it issued directions on how to search for                While the Orange and Blue books
                 that workers in mines, shipbuilding and       asbestos-containing materials. The only                did not command that asbestos be tom
                 other asbestos-using industries had con-      "permanent" solution, it said, was to                  out, their dire admonitions-plus the
                 tracted lung cancer, asbestosis-a dis-        take it out. Four years later, the EPA                 availability of federal funds for asbestos
                 ease marked by stiffening of the lung                                                                removal only-pushed schools into
                 tissues-and a rare lung cancer called                                                                many needless removals . An asbestos-
                 mesothelioma . By the 1970s, Selikoff's                                                              remediation industry sprang up over-
                                                                    RISKY BUSINESS ,
                 research was the foundation for lawsuits           Many things eepose people to a greater            night ; it would gross $4 billion to $5 bil-
                 against asbestos manufacturers . Many              threat than exposure to asbestos    .             lion annually. Schools would pay up to
                 were driven out of business . (Others                                                                $1 billion a year ; other building owners
                 continue to pay. Last October 31, for in-          lifenme probahility uf prematme death             paid the rest.
                 stance, 10 large asbestos manufacturers            fpW 100,000)                                         On second thought . But by 1985, some
                 settled with 15,000 school districts for           Being a pedestrian hit by car 290                 notable environmental health scientists
                 $200 million in damages.)                                                                            were backing off. New data were show-
                    Selikoffs findings scared school lead-         Tobacco smoke 200                                  ing that levels of airborne asbestos in
                 ers because many walls, floor and ceil-            Diagnostic X-ray              .         75        buildings with even flaking insulation
                 ing tiles, roofs and insulation materials                                                            could be as low, or nearly as low, as the
                 contained asbestos fibers . If the sur-            Bicycling                               75        air outdoors . Asbestos was everywhere :
                 faces were abraded, asbestos could float           Miami/New Orleans drinking water 7                It came from auto-brake pads and
                 into the air and be inhaled . Parents                                                                building and roofing materials . People
                 feared their kids could get asbestosis.           .     Lightning                              3     breathe in'a million fibers a year, and
                    That fear was misguided : Early stud-           Hurricanes                                  3     nearly everyone has asbestos in his
                 ies concluded that asbestosis came only                                                              lungs, scientists would say .
                                                                   . Asbestos in school buildings 1
                 after long-term inhalation of large vol-                                                               The new thinking was that most as-
                 umes of asbestos dust, as in dirty fac-           USN&WR-Bask Eata : Encrgy end EnvVOnmeMal Policy
                                                                                                                      bestos in schools should be left alone ; in
                                                               I   Centerof HarvarE Un1ve5M1y -
                 tories . A more likely risk to children was                                                          most cases, painting, spray-coating or
                 lung cancer. But again, early studies had                                                            covering it up was the best and cheapest

                 62                                                                                                       US .NEWB & 6VORLD REPORT. FEBRUARY 20. L995

         solution . In a nod to the new                                                                                       school and office buildings
         thinking, the EPA's 1985 Purple                                                                                      meant low overall risk. It point-
                                                     DON'T TAKE OUR
         Book placed "managing asbes-                                                                                         ed out that the dust created by
                                                     WORD ON IT
         tos" ahead of "removal" on                                                                                           improper asbestos'removal
         some lists of options . But the                                                                                     could actually increase the dan-
         shift was subtle, and it was                The EPA gave confusing advice overthe years about the                   ger . Still, some schools were not
         hardly noticed. Opposing inter-                                                                                     getting the message . In May
         ests now had a stake in asbestos            best way to handle                                                      1990, for instance, the Downers
         removal : They included labor               asbestos:        .                                                      Grove school district near Chi-
         unions who wanted it out of                                                                                         cago prepared to spend the last
         workplaces, parent-teacher                  1979 Orange Book                                                        $850,000 of a $5 million asbes-
         groups fearful for children and             "No safe level of exposure has been estab-                              tos-management project . But
         a mushrooming asbestos-re-                                                                                          this time, it said, the work would
         moval industry.                             lished . . . . Removal completely eliminates the
                                                                                                                             be much harder because the as-
           Powerful convert . Perhaps                source of exposure to asbestos and is, there-                           bestos was on pipes sealed inside
        most important, Selikoff him-                fore, a permanent solution ."                                           the walls . That got the attention
        self had drifted from the posi-                                                                                      of then EPA Administrator Wil-
        tion of being a neutral research       1990 Green Book                                                               liam Reilly, who ordered the
        scientist to that of an antiasbes-                                                                                   EPA to study how well it had
        tos activist. He told a congres-       "Based on available data, the average                                         advised the public on asbestos .
        sional panel in 1984 that the risk     airborne levels in buildings seem to be very                                  The result, published in 1992,
        posed by asbestos in schools                                                                                         was a remarkable-and embar-
                                               low. . . . Removal Is often NOT a building
        was intolerable. The subcom-                                                                                         rassing-document . It found
        mittee chairman, then Rep . Jim        otvner's best course of action to reduce                                      that the EPA had made matters
        Florio of New Jersey, shepherd-        asbestos exposure."                                                           worse by publishing confusing
        ed passage of a law called the                                                                                       and shifting guidances .
        Asbestos Hazard Emergency                                                                                               In the absence of certainty at
        Response Act in 1986 . Florio                                                                                        the federal level, six other
        says he wanted to end the confusing         maintenance officers, and they had all                           states have debated proposals like
        stream of "guidances," put an end to        submitted their [EPA required] plans                             Michigan's. None has been enacted be-
        the sloppy and corrupt asbestos-remov-      and were hellbent to rip it out ."                               cause of trial lawyers' protests and be-
        al firms and make the EPA write clear          Some notv regret it . Rick Simonson,                          cause of state attorneys general who
        rules for schools to follow . The EPA the assistant superintendent for Oak-                                  argue that such a law could affect their
        did some of that: It put asbestos in-       land County schools north of Detroit,                            own litigation against manufacturers .
        spectors, planners and even haulers un-     estimates his district spent nearly $100                         Eleven states have set permissible as-
        der strict regulations . It ordered million tearing out 70 percent to 80 per-                                bestos-in-air standards for public build-
        schools to do inspections and create as-   cent of the schools' asbestos . He now                            ings ; up to nine states include schools.
        bestos-management plans . All that, of says they should have done just the re-                               The level is about 10 times more strin-
        course, added millions of dollars to verse -taken out 20 to 30 percent and                                   gent than the one just set by the feder-
        schools' costs . The EPA, however, later sealed up the rest . "We spent a ton of                             al Occupational Safety and Health Ad-
        argued that Florio had fueled the as-      money removing that stuff when we                                 ministration for industry.
        bestos alarm. Florio counters that the didn't need to," he says.                                                But the EPA still refuses to say what
        EPA dragged its feet and never set             In its 1990 Green Book, the EPA ac-                           levels are safe for schoolchildren to
        safety standards .                         knowledged that low levels of asbestos in                         breathe. The reason? Robert Jordan,
           By 1990, however, a mass of new data                                                                      an environmental protection specialist            i
        showed the true levels of asbestos in                                                                        at the EPA, says his agency fears that
        schoolroom air around the nation were                                                                        "people could be lulled into compla-
        extremely low. Articles in the New Eng-                                                                      cency" by taking infrequent air sam-
        land Journal of Medicine and Science                                                                         ples . If asbestos levels suddenly tumed
        magazine argued that the asbestos                                                                            worse, school officials wouldn't know
        threat had been exaggerated . These                                                                          it, he argues .
        caught the attention of John "Joe"                                                                             So asbestos madness continues . For
        Schwarz, a physician and Michigan                                                                            fear of asbestos, in 1993 New York City
        state senator, who feared the reasons to                                                                     ripped, out tons of plaster from its
        fear asbestos had been overstated from                                                                       schools, only to find that just 25 percent
        the beginning . It took three years for                                                                      of it contained asbestos . How much of
        him to win passage of a law requiring                                                                       that found its way into the air no one        ta
        school districts to keep asbestos-laden                                                                                                                   ~
                                                                                                                    knows. With Congress and the EPA
        materials in place unless unique condi-                                                                     now considering regulations for lead
        tions made removal wiser. Opposition                                                                        and radon exposure, the 1992 EPA re-
        came from the state's trial lawyers, who                                                                    port on how it messed up its message
        represented plaintiffs in asbestos cases,                                                                   on asbestos should be required reading.
        parental groups, labor unions and even,                                                                     But that report is virtually impossible to
        surprisingly, schools themselves . "What                                                                    fmd inside the EPA . Says one in-house
        was particularly pernicious, a bu-                                                                          expert, "I think it's been buried ." ∎
        reaucracy had grown up," Schwarz now
        says. "The schools all had asbestos-                   Florio . He wrote tough asbestos legislation .                     BY Pr:rea CnxY

        US.NEWS & W06LD REPORT, FEffi2UARY 20,1935                                                           .   ~e.mn7nucuiuu~-usxe .vn,                 63

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