closed its public schools for two weeks
` SCIENCE- &SOCIETY" 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- ®
How the feds got schools to spend billions on tists and physicians
that asbestos in llVYlidllt1H11Yli
a problem that really didn't amount to much public buildings is B;EiPjO: 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
cautions : asbestos . A tough, heat-resis-
tant mineral fiber associated with lung
physics professor at Harvard University,
calls it . A study soon to be released by the
head-to-toe spacesuits . "They make you disease, asbestos has long had the repu- 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 . .
I 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 too 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
IdM CNVSSON-GU .I W /NaWN
Cleanup. Many school dirrrtcts like the one in New York City had costly asbestos-removaL drives . No one is sure now if it was worth tt
asrrEws & WORLD REPOaT. FE6aunHrzo.7998 61
∎ SCIENCE & SOCIETY
real danger . Less understand-
able is the role of government
agencies, especially the federal
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
the language of this : we are us- Voice of eason . 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
Frst 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 tortt
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 bv stiffening of the lung removal only-pushed schools into
tissues-and a rare lung cancer called man,v needless removals. An asbestos-
mesothelioma. By the 1970s, Selikoff's RISKY BUSINESS , I remediation industry sprang up over-
research was the foundation for lawsuits Many things expose 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- lifeeme pnbabinly of prcmeLVe death paid the rest.
stance, 10 large asbestos manufacturers cper 100,0001 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-
Selikoff's 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 Odeans 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- USV&WR-aazic datd : En~ antl Emironnrental Poliry
bestos in schools should be left alone ; in
tories. A more likel,v risk to children was most cases, painting, spray-coating oi•
lung cancer . But again, early studies had covering it up was the best and cheapest
62 US.NENS & WORLD REPORT. FEBBCrARY 20.1M
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 I T
tos" ahead of "removal" on improper asbestos removal
some- lists of options. But the The EPA gave could actually increase the dan-
shift was subtle, and it was confusing advice ove ger. Still, some schools were not
hardly noticed . Opposing inter- rtheyasbou 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 pennanent solution .° the snRs. 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 low. . . . Removal is often NOT a building was a remarkable-and embar-
was intolerable . The subcom- rassing-document. It found
mittee chairman, then Rep . Jim owner'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 othe r
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 an d corrupt asbestos-remov- and were helibent to rip it out . " cause of trial lawyers' protests and be-
al firms an d make the EPA write clear Some now regret it. Rick Simonson, cause of state attorneys general who
niles 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 '
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 Scfence ples . If asbestos levels suddenly turned
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 thatlust 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
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 unioAs and even, But that report is virtually impossible to
surprisingly, schools themselves . "What fm'd inside the EPA . Says one in-house
was particularly pernicious, a bu- expert, "I think it's been buried ." s
reaucracy had grown up," Schwarz now
says . "The schools all had asbestos- Florio. He wrote tough asbestos legislation . BY PETSB CAHf [
US.NEPoS & WORLD REPIXIf. FEBRUARY 20. L'195 i~iww_usvsxn 63