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                                                                                                        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



http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/hco52d00/pdf
                 ∎ 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
                 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
                                                                  centerOlMaIVdNllniveTty
                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

                                                                                                                               2a4G29130'7

http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/hco52d00/pdf
   I



         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


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