The Asbestos Rip-Off

By Michael Fumento

The American Spectator, October 1989
Copyright 1989 by The American Spectator

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Coming soon to a school or office near you: a life-saving innovation that could kill you, designed to correct a problem that doesn't exist, by removing materials that aren't dangerous until somebody tries to remove them. And guess who's going to pay for it.


For the school board of San Francisco, and the students of McAteer High School, it was the problem that wouldn’t die.

In the early eighties, after a routine check, the school was discovered to be virtually saturated in asbestos: every ceiling, pipe, and beam had been coated when the building was constructed in 1973 to provide insulation and fire protection.

After acting to minimize the disruption in school activities — the students were to be transferred to another school during the asbestos removal, which in any case was to take place mostly in the summer months — the board authorized $10 million to clear McAteer of asbestos.

A year later, however, the students were still at the other school. The cost of the removal had risen to more than $11 million. To make up for the projected overruns, the board tried to sell a parcel of land for $5 million. The attempt failed. By the time the students were allowed to return to McAteer, they had spent three semesters at the other school. Total costs, including some repairs unrelated to asbestos, stood at $18 million — the equivalent of the annual salaries for 217 of San Francisco’s (highly paid) teachers.

It gets worse: the entire asbestos removal, it now appears, was unnecessary. Or so the superintendent of San Francisco’s school board now believes, with considerable justification. Two recent reports, along with a slew of earlier ones, indicate that the students at McAteer High were probably in no danger from asbestos exposure and never would be.

Instead, they — and the school board and the taxpayers of the city of San Francisco — were victims of what could end up as one of the biggest regulatory boondoggles in American history. In the end, its costs may well run into the hundreds of billions of dollars; more disastrously, it could cause more deaths than it prevents.

AHERA Today, Gone Tomorrow

While fear of asbestos contamination in buildings is a fairly recent development, use of the fibrous mineral dates back to ancient times. Romans used napkins of woven asbestos, which were dry-cleaned by being tossed in the fire. Asbestos outerwear, used to withstand damage from fires, was worn at least as early as the first half of the nineteenth century.

In this century, asbestos was required in the bulkheads of all American warships. Up until 1976, model building codes mandated its use in spaces where protection against fire was essential. Even now, asbestos is used in hundreds of products, ranging from vehicle brakes to sewer pipes to protective aprons and gloves.

The use of asbestos was first questioned in the 1920s, when factory workers began filing the first of thousands of lawsuits against employers, after asbestosis, an often fatal scarring of the lungs, became widely recognized. Later, in the 1960s, Dr. Irving Selikoff documented the correlation between asbestos and lung cancer and mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the lungs) in shipyard workers. Between these three diseases, asbestos is estimated to cause from 3,300 to 12,000 deaths in the US. each year, often with a lag time of thirty or more years between exposure and the development of disease.

Since the sixties, asbestos has fallen under increasing regulation. In 1986, goaded by the National Education Association, Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Service Employees International Union, US. Public Interest Group (founded by Ralph Nader), and others, Congress passed, and President Reagan signed, the most stringent asbestos statute yet.

Effective December 14, 1987, the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) ordered that every school building in the United States, whether public or private, be inspected for asbestos. Schools judged to be unsafe — an estimated 45,000 buildings — were required to draw up abatement plans by October 12, 1988, and to have begun protective action no later than July 19, 1989.

The stringency of AHERA lay not only in its sweep — there are, after all, a lot of school buildings in the United States — but also in the kinds of asbestos defined as requiring abatement. Friable asbestos-containing materials (that is, those readily crumpled by hand) that are "significantly damaged" must be abated, but so too must those that have the potential for "significant damage, " even if they are firmly imbedded in walls, floors, and ceilings. Abatement is achieved either through encapsulation or, more often, through removal.

Asbestos was commonly used in school construction until the early 1970s. Most schools have asbestos in floor and ceiling tiles, acoustical plaster, pipe insulation, and fireproofing materials. Since asbestos makes an excellent thermal insulator, cold weather states tend to have far more of it in their schools and other buildings.

Although there are several varieties of asbestos found in different regions around the world, chrysotile or "white’ asbestos, mined in Quebec, is generally considered to be the most benign type, since the length of its fibers makes it conducive to being washed out by the lungs. Significantly, over 95 percent of the asbestos used in the US. is chrysotile.

Panic in the Malls

The cost of removing asbestos is nothing short of staggering. Sprayed on for about 25 cents a foot in the 1960s, it can now cost $25 or more a foot to remove (up to $50 in New York City), owing to the safety precautions that must be taken to protect the remover and occupants of the building.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for enforcing AHERA, the cleanup of the 45,000 schools under the act will cost taxpayers an estimated $3.1 billion over a three-year period — an amount equal to the average annual salaries of 110,000 teachers.

In fact, that figure is almost certainly too low. A report in American School and University magazine stated that although EPA was estimating costs of $6,500 to $6,900 per school building for inspection and development of the removal plan, "districts should expect to pay about $20,000 per building — or more."

California state auditors estimated the cost of removing asbestos hazards from that states 7,000 affected public schools would be at least $500 million, while the California General Assembly’s Office of Research estimated the cost for all schools in the state, public and private, at about $1 billion. The National School Boards Association has estimated total U.S. school abatement costs in excess of $6 billion.

So far, EPA has appropriated $202 million to aid in local school abatement programs — little more than a token amount, as mounting evidence indicates. Alabama, a warm weather state, has already spent $35 million to remove asbestos from 90 percent of its school buildings. One school district in Broward County, Florida, will pay an estimated $10 million in abatement costs.

And while the NEA and others have made it a priority to obtain far greater federal funding, it is really only a matter of redistributing the tax burden. One way or another, whether through local property assessments or federal taxes, the taxpayer foots the bill.

Except, of course, when the school is a private one. Private schools, unable to fund bonding measures, are suffering the most. In June, Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick of Newark, speaking to an assembly of bishops at Seton Hall University, declared: "We have to get some federal help. If we cannot... we will be faced with the question of the very survival of parochial schools.

Still, school abatement costs are but the tip of the iceberg. A similar program for all public and commercial buildings — which has so far been stalled in Congress and by EPA-would cost $51 billion, according to EPA. But again, the evidence is that the agency’s estimates are on the low side — to say the very least.

For example, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is expecting to pay about $1 billion for the abatement of just the World Trade Center and LaGuardia Airport. (New York City law requires abatement if renovation work is being done, as it is at these buildings.) A report by the Assembly Office of Research in California said that the total cost of removing asbestos from all asbestos-containing buildings in that moderate weather state could be $20 billion.

Thus California and two complexes in New York City are slated to take up almost half of the EPA estimated total cost. According to Stephen L. Schweich, an environmental industry analyst, direct abatement costs could be around $100 billion, and other reputable estimates put the figure as high as $200 billion.

Writing in the June issue of the trade magazine Asbestos Issues, Peter MacDowall, a widely respected industry consultant and analyst, and Ehud Mouchy, a real estate consultant, estimate total abatement costs at (Gulp!) more than $2 trillion over the next three decades, a figure which includes not only the direct cost of abatement, as the EPA’s does, but lost wages due to displacement and other incidental costs.

Under the EPA’s 1974 national emission standard for hazardous air pollutants, anyone who wants to tear down or renovate a building must remove the friable asbestos-containing materials first. As a consequence of this, and of the possibility of lawsuits from persons claiming asbestos exposure, prices of asbestos-containing buildings have fallen precipitously — as much as ten percent in Manhattan, with greater losses in other cities.

A Japanese corporation reduced its expected offer to buy the Exxon building in Manhattan by $100 million when the buyer learned it would have to spend that much to remove asbestos from the building if it hoped to renovate. Likewise, the price of the ARCO building in Los Angeles, also sold to a Japanese firm, was reduced by as much as $50 million because of the potential cost of abating asbestos.

Yet tremendous expenses can be incurred even without selling. In 1985 a national real estate investment firm purchased a mall near Denver for $53 million, believing it to be free of asbestos. Two years later, when it decided to renovate, it found asbestos throughout the ceiling. Health officials ordered the mall shut, and the inventory of 100 stores was carted away and buried. Total costs, including the removal, lost rent, and payments to storekeepers: $17 million.

Not surprisingly, then, such institutional investors as banks, pension funds, and insurance companies, fearing a tide of asbestos-related lawsuits (meritless or otherwise), are increasingly refusing to lend against or buy into asbestos-containing buildings.

A Low-fiber Diet

Yet whatever the cost, whatever the economic dislocation, the price is worth paying, we are told, because of what such caution prevents: the grisly deaths of thousands of Americans, especially schoolchildren. (The figures most commonly cited by abatement advocates, in their publications and testimony before Congress, are 15 million children along with another 1.4 million adults who work in schools.)

In fact, the issue is far from that simple. First, the EPA’s standard for when abatement should take place may be useless. EPA maintains that visual inspections should be used to determine which materials need to be removed or encapsulated and which may be left alone. Air monitoring, in which air is sampled and then inspected by microscopes, is seen to be, at best, "a source of supplemental information, when conducted in conjunction with a comprehensive visual inspection."

But as Michael Gough, an asbestos specialist, has pointed out in the periodical Science and Technology, the EPA "has presented no information supporting the predictive value of visual clues for future conditions.... When it has evaluated how well inspectors’ opinions correlate with measurements of current airborne asbestos levels, the agency has found repeated failure."

In its study of federal office buildings, for example, inspectors trained to EPA visual-inspection standards found that in buildings where asbestos materials were judged to be in good repair, the median airborne concentration turned out to be 3.5 nanograms per cubic meter (or .0001 fibers per cubic centimeter). For buildings with materials judged in poor repair, the median concentration was only 0.25 nanograms per cubic meter (or less than .00001 fibers per cubic centimeter) — exactly the opposite of what the EPA’s standard of measurement might have led one to expect.

Gough concluded: "Although the EPA may argue that air monitoring provides information about only one point in time, visual inspections don’t even do that accurately." Nevertheless, the EPA has decided that for now "the options for risk reduction do not include the setting of an acceptable level of exposure to asbestos with accompanying air monitoring."

Second, while it is incontrovertible that constant exposure to high levels of asbestos dust can cause serious medical problems often leading to death, low-level exposure is an entirely different matter. Comparing exposures of persons in asbestos occupations to those who are simply occupants in buildings with asbestos is very tenuous. Asbestos workers in the 1940s and ’50s were generally exposed to concentrations from 100,000 to one million times higher than those which would be present in a building using asbestos insulation.

Every day we are subject to countless minerals, bacteria, and other substances such as arsenic, cyanide, and mercury which, in high enough doses, would prove fatally poisonous, yet which in low levels have no adverse effect whatsoever. The level below which no harm is caused is called a "threshold."

Proponents of asbestos abatement claim there is no threshold for asbestos exposure: that is, they say that while persons inhaling smaller amounts of asbestos fiber will develop cancer at lesser rates, even the tiniest amount of exposure nevertheless causes a risk of disease. "A single asbestos fiber," one often reads in abatement literature, "can kill you."

There is no evidence for this. In adducing support for the proposition that even low-level exposure entails risk (low level being that which the occupant of an average asbestos-containing building would experience), abatement supporters invariably cite the finding that household members of workers in asbestos occupations have higher-than average levels of lung disease. The added risk presumably comes from washing the workers’ clothing or other similar contact.

But handling clothing covered in asbestos over a period of decades cannot be compared to sitting in a building with asbestos built into the ceiling or wrapped around pipes in the boiler room. Further, this phenomenon of familial sickness appears consigned mostly to the regions of South Africa, where crocidolite or "blue’ asbestos is mined. Blue asbestos fibers are structured such that they are generally thought to be the most dangerous of all types of asbestos on the opposite end of the scale, in other words, from the white Canadian fibers used in almost all American asbestos products.

Still, building a case for abating asbestos around the "no safe level" argument is inherently flawed: it would be like banning automobiles or planes because no combination of safety features can make automobile or plane travel completely safe. Cars and planes are much more dangerous than anybody’s estimate of the risk of low-level asbestos exposure, but they have an overriding utility, so they stay. Likewise, leaving asbestos alone has a great utility in that, as will be seen, it costs a fortune — both in dollars and in lives — to remove it.

The "single fiber" and "no threshold" assertions rest on the premise that asbestos fibers are some sort of alien substance that the body simply can’t handle-like the plastic in a landfill that will stay there forever because nature is incapable of breaking it down. "Inhaled asbestos fibers," wrote Medical Self Care magazine, "bypass the body’s respiratory defenses and settle deep in the lungs."

In fact, as the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Medical and Health Annual explains, in most instances inhaled asbestos fibers never reach the lower respiratory tract but are removed from the lung by the continuously moving mucous lining. If they get past that point, other defense systems will usually remove them or isolate them so they can do no harm.

And a good thing, too, for asbestos — far from being a microbe brought back to earth by a falling satellite or some sinister substance concocted in a Defense Department laboratory — is as natural a pollutant as house dust. It has been around longer than man. Because it occurs in rock formations, everyone is exposed to it: in the air, in water, in food.

In some areas asbestos concentrations exceeding those permitted by government workplace regulations have been recorded in natural dustfall along roads. Regardless of where we work or attend school, all of us are exposed to some level of the mineral every day.

The crucial question is how much.

Overload, obviously, is unacceptable: a miner or shipyard worker, breathing in large amounts of asbestos each day for decades, may have large amounts of asbestos getting past his body’s defense system or even causing that system to break down. On the other hand, analyses of normal healthy adult lung tissues of persons who have not been exposed in the workplace have found that they contain millions of asbestos fibers.

Facts Are Stupid Things

A number of expert governmental bodies and scientific authorities have concluded that the risk of disease from exposure to asbestos in buildings is close to zero. Among them are Hans Weill, M.D., and Janet Hughes of Tulane University, Richard Doll and Julian Peto of Oxford University, the Ontario Royal Commission on Asbestos, and the United Kingdom Advisory Committee on Asbestos. [See box below.]

Most recently, reports have appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and from the Harvard University Energy and Environmental Policy Center. Both indicate that the threat of low-level asbestos exposure has more to do with hype and hysteria than health.

In the June 29,1989, NEJM, two researchers from the University of Vermont and Yale schools of medicine wrote that, given the extra risks of smoking and the problems of accurately classifying smokers and nonsmokers, "it remains uncertain whether any type of asbestos acting alone can cause lung cancer in nonsmokers." (It is almost universally agreed that smokers face a much greater risk of developing asbestos-related disease, on the order of fifty times higher or more)

NEJM also reported:

Recent epidemiological studies of persons with low exposure to asbestos either occupationally or environmentally provide little support for the concept that there is an increased risk of lung cancer when asbestos concentrations are at levels several hundred or thousand times lower than those found in workplace situations in the past.

The NEJM study went on to cite five studies (none of which, incidentally, appear elsewhere in this article) of persons exposed to asbestos which "show no statistically significant excess cases of lung cancer when concentrations of fibers are low."

The study concludes: "In the absence of epidemiological data or estimations of risk that indicate that the health risks of environmental exposure to asbestos are large enough to justify high expenditure of public funds, one must question the unprecedented expenses on the order of $100 billion to $150 billion that could result from asbestos abatement."

The Harvard study, based on a symposium held last December and released August 10, found that the "lifetime risk of premature death due to indoor environmental tobacco smoke (i.e., living with a smoker) or living in a house that has radon is two hundred to four hundred times greater than the projected risks of dying from exposures to asbestos at concentrations" to which schoolchildren would be exposed in schools with friable asbestos.

Death from smoking is 20,000 times more likely than from such low-level exposure; death from being run down by a motor vehicle while walking is 290 times more likely. [See table below.] And you read it here first, folks; the popular media ignored the study.

For the most part, these studies are ignored by abatement advocates as well: the danger, they attest, is so clear and present that batting around figures from studies is simply a waste of time. "There is no doubt that ... asbestos material in our Nation’s schools is placing our children at considerable risk," declared Rep. Norman Lent (R-NY), co-sponsor of AHERA and the ranking Republican on the Commerce, Transportation, and Tourism subcommittee.

"I do not have to tell this subcommittee about the hazards posed by friable asbestos in schools and public and commercial buildings," said John J. Sweeney, international president of Service Employees International, in a written statement to the subcommittee.

"In our view," went a statement by the AFLCIO to the same subcommittee, "the presence of friable asbestos in our schools is a danger to the health and well-being of millions of students." No support for that view was given.

There are myriad studies of low-level asbestos exposure. Few are ever cited by mass-abatement proponents. One of these few was released by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 1984, one of the first of the low-level exposure studies, and now one of the oldest. It is widely considered to be obsolete.

For example, the study averages the cancer risk of all types of asbestos — a sensible calculation when little was known about the carcinogenic differences among the various types. It did say, however, that if chrysotile proved to be less carcinogenic, then "the assumption of equal potency may lead to overstated risk estimates." Sure enough, the 1989 Harvard study, citing three post-NAS studies, states:

There is general agreement that crocidolite [blue] and amosite asbestos pose much greater risk of mesothelioma than chrysotile [and since] most commercial asbestos ... used in the United States has been Canadian chrysotile ... the application of mixed fiber risk models may be conservative.

The NAS study also estimated that the risk of mesothelioma was even higher than that of lung cancer, yet a study published later that year by the New Jersey Asbestos Policy Committee found that "it is very unlikely that nonoccupational exposures typical for the general public produce mesothelioma."

Not surprisingly, one of the highest estimates of the fatality rate from low-level asbestos exposure comes from a study conducted by the EPA and released in 1988. There it is estimated that 733,000 public and commercial buildings, or 20 percent of the total in the nation, contain friable asbestos. Half of these, ten percent of the total, were estimated to contain damaged asbestos.

The study calculated that among the tens of millions of persons who will circulate through the buildings during the buildings’ estimated average useful life, 3,300 asbestos related fatalities will result, an average of twenty-five deaths per year. Nevertheless, the agency concluded that because there are not enough capable technicians to inspect all public and commercial buildings with asbestos to determine which need maintenance or removal, the greater present threat was that asbestos would be accidentally released into the air through faulty abatement. This is what was termed a "don’t panic" approach.

They panicked anyway. The Service Employees International Union, which represents 150,000 building service workers, called the EPA’s recommendation not to panic "particularly disturbing. " James Florio (D-NJ), the sponsor of AHERA in the House of Representatives and the chairman of the Commerce, Transportation, and Tourism subcommittee, responded to the report by announcing that he would consider legislation requiring federal intervention to lower the asbestos risks in public buildings. (Former Senator Robert Stafford, Republican of Vermont and a sponsor of AHERA in the Senate, had in fact introduced legislation in 1987 to do just that.)

"Everything in this report," Florio said, "points toward aggressive federal intervention except EPA’s recommendations, which amount to nothing more than sweeping this alarming problem under the rug."

But before we start shelling out hundreds of billions for universal abatement, some key points should be made about the EPA study that so alarmed Rep. Florio and his abatement absolutists.

First, the agency reported that the worst airborne asbestos levels in a sampling of forty-three federal buildings were no higher than the levels found in the air outside the buildings. You can’t abate the great outdoors.

Further, that finding casts doubt on the validity of the 3,300 deaths figure. Generally, when we consider the carcinogenic effects of substances we look for incidence of the substance above the background or "ambient" level. It is difficult to argue that one can have an incidence above ambient level when the indoor exposure matches the outdoor exposure. If, in other words, a person set up his office outside a building containing damaged friable asbestos, the EPA estimate would apply to him just as surely as if he worked inside.

Second, while the EPA estimate on future deaths from low-level exposure is above that of numerous other studies, it is still very much in the same ballpark. Driving a car to work is over 150 times more dangerous than EPA says working in a building with damaged friable asbestos is. In a nation that reports about a million cancer cases a year, this EPA figure would represent about 0.0025 percent of all such malignancies.

There is, in short, practically nothing that one can think of as fatal, other than shark attacks and bubonic plague, that kills as few as twenty-five Americans each year. Hearing the NEA warn about the 15 million students and 1.4 million adults at risk, one might never know that, even granting EPA estimates, the risk experienced by attending a school for ten years with 0.001 fibers per cubic centimeter average asbestos exposures (an amount actually higher than that found in most schools with asbestos) would be equivalent to the risk a person runs by smoking a lifetime total of five cigarettes, absorbing radiation from living in a brick building for seven months, living with a smoker for seven months, or riding in a motor vehicle a total of 1,000 miles.

There is, however, a group of people who are truly at risk from asbestos exposures group that never shows up in the calculations (such as they are) of the abatement advocates. These are the persons performing the actual abatements required by law, and those who might fall victim to slipshod abatement.

The Real Victims

Asbestos abatement usually consists of scraping walls, ceilings, and beams square foot by square foot, and even though federal regulations require that workers performing abatement use respirators and wear outfits that resemble space suits, injury to lung tissues remains a severe problem.

In fact, the Occupational and Safety Hazard Administration (OSHA) estimated that men working under its pre-July 1986 standards will incur sixty-four lung cancers from asbestos exposure for each 1,000 working men; by the more stringent current standards, it estimates six casualties per 1,000. Exactly how many cancers that equals is not possible to say, since no one keeps figures on how many persons do such work. The National Asbestos Council estimates that, depending on the season, there are about 4,000 contractors who remove asbestos, each of whom can employ anywhere from a handful of workers to thousands; hundreds of employees at peak season is not uncommon for the larger contractors. Thus, even under OSHA standards, asbestos abatement could result in a proportionately high number of deaths per year.

But many contractors don’t even use OSHA or EPA standards. Because asbestos abatement is so frightfully expensive when done properly, the temptation to do it improperly is immense. Stories abound of lower-class and immigrant workers who have been duped into believing asbestos removal was just a routine job, requiring no mask or special clothing.

Of building superintendents in New York, one local health official said: "Half of these guys don’t speak English and if you offer them $50 and point to what you want torn out, they’ll do anything for you." According to a criminal complaint filed in Manhattan, a building porter was hired to rip asbestos out of a boiler room in a building being converted into co-operatives. The porter, who spoke no English and was completely unaware of the risk, pulled the asbestos off fifteen pipes with his bare hands until the building superintendent saw the white cloud of dust and told him to stop.

In San Antonio, 166 workers have sued a contractor who hired them while they were homeless. They claim they were not told the material they removed was asbestos, and all wore little or no protection.

Nor is it surprising, with such high financial stakes, that some bribery occurs on those occasions when inspectors are monitoring abatements. In New York last year, officials of twenty-three companies (twenty-five men in all), representing the majority of concerns involved in the removal and disposal of asbestos material in the New York metropolitan region, were charged with bribing an EPA inspector.

While officials said that there appeared to be little danger to the public in the illegal removals, which included part of Madison Square Garden, the New York Coliseum, and the former Gimbel’s department store, hundreds and possibly thousands of asbestos removers were at risk. An officer of the US. Department of Labor described the workers as being from the "low end of the social scale." Some of them, in fact, were reportedly foreign nationals employed illegally while on a one-year tourist visa. They have since returned home-many perhaps with a 30-year time bomb ticking away in their lungs.

The blunt reality is this: the greater the amount of asbestos that is removed, the greater the number of people who will die from removing it. If sixty-four of 1,000 workers under OSHA’s old regulations will succumb to asbestos-related cancer, how many unprotected workers are at risk now, only because we have required abatements that the evidence shows were unnecessary to begin with? Many occupations, of course, carry with them a risk of death, but do we want to put asbestos abatement alongside firefighting, law enforcement, coal mining, construction, and soldiering? Especially when it inevitably leads to the exploitation of immigrants and the homeless?

The answer might be, again, that such risks must be taken if we are to reduce the risks to schoolchildren and office workers from uncertain levels to zero (or almost zero). Alas, that is probably not the case, for — as even the pro-abatement forces acknowledge — the greatest risk of asbestos exposure in a non-occupational setting arises when asbestos is disturbed. Obviously, nothing disturbs asbestos like removing it. Any removal job that requires scraping will necessarily disperse asbestos into the air.

The congressionally chartered National Institute of Building Sciences noted in 1984: "Whether the removal process involves dry or wet disruption of the in-place asbestos, data shows that a substantial quantity becomes resuspended and recirculated throughout the building."

With schools, this is somewhat less of a problem, since the building can be kept clear for the summer while the work is done. But multi-story office buildings are generally abated floor by floor, exposing the occupants on other floors to high asbestos levels during the entire project-and after. Air quality testing of abatement sites has found exceptionally high levels of airborne asbestos for up to ten months after the abatement work was completed. EPA does regulate how high levels may go after an abatement, but that level-.02 fibers per cubic centimeter of air-is many times higher than that found in most buildings prior to abatement.

The typical school with asbestos-containing materials, for example, has less than 0.0009 fibers per cubic centimeter before abatement. Thus abatement can mean an extra ten months of asbestos exposure at much higher levels than those to which occupants were exposed before abatement.

Rip and Skip

Once more, however, the most troublesome problem lies not with work conforming to federal or state standards but with work that does not conform.

The rush to abate America has given rise to what some have called abatement "pirates" or "rip and skip" abaters. As one writer put it in the Kansas City Star, "Their strategy is simple: Underbid the competition, rip out the asbestos quickly, cut regulatory corners, then skip town to the next job before authorities catch up."

These people care little for the safety of their workers or the occupants — present or future — of the buildings they’re abating; they want easy money. In one case, state inspectors discovered asbestos dust littering floors and windows in a Kansas junior high school where removal was supposedly finished. In another school in Kansas, it was found that while a reputable third party was monitoring an asbestos removal crew during the day, during the night the abater would sneak in a large crew to do the bulk removal without proper supervision or safeguards.

These "rip and skippers" were caught, but it’s a safe bet that most are not. In fact, in 1986 EPA estimated that as much as three-fourths of all asbestos abatement work is being conducted improperly. With the massive increase in the number of abatements nationwide, it is difficult to say whether this percentage is improving; it might even be growing worse.

Further, even if one assumes that correctly removing asbestos lowers the risk of asbestos-related disease, questions remain about how the asbestos will be replaced. In a paper delivered recently at a conference sponsored by the Society of Mining Engineers and the National Stone Association, Malcolm Ross of the U.S. Geological Survey noted that manmade asbestos replacements, called "vitreous fibers" or "glassy fibers," "have been studied intensively and statistically significant studies are just now being reported."

Drawing on two separate reports, one of over 25,000 workers in thirteen plants in Europe and one of over 16,000 workers at seventeen plants in the United States, Ross found that a statistically significant excess of lung cancer (52 percent) is seen in these [manmade mineral fibers]. Exposure was generally less than 1 fiber per cubic [centimeter] and most commonly in the range of 0.01 to 0.1 fibers per cubic [centimeter]. In contrast, the Quebec chrysotile asbestos miners and millers with at least 20 years service in the industry and exposed to between 10 and 21 fibers per [centimeter] showed an excess of lung cancer of 12 percent.

Moreover, notes Ross, numerous such fibers have tested positively for tumor production in animals. Thus, to the extent that low-level asbestos exposure can be said to cause cancer, there is every reason to think that much of what is being used to replace asbestos will cause even more cancer. Those maintenance workers who are daily exposed to asbestos in insulation and fireproofing materials, and who are clearly at risk, may very well be at greater risk after the asbestos is replaced.

Abategate

By the time one finishes subtracting potential asbestos-related deaths from the potential deaths linked to the other causes listed above, the question is probably not how many lives we will save with our $100 billion (or more) investment but how many we will lose. As an experiment in lifesaving, widescale asbestos abatement may be the dumbest idea in modern times. Only a tremendously affluent country like the United States could possibly afford such foolhardiness. Why the hysteria?

There is, for starters, an anticommercial animus among the abatement enthusiasts which leads them, predictably, to cast the asbestos industry as the villain. The logic of much of their argument runs something like this: manufacturers of asbestos products have a financial interest in downplaying the risk of low-level exposure, therefore when they do so they are lying; and because they are lying when they downplay the risk of low-level exposure, low-level exposure must therefore be inordinately dangerous. Hence their disdain, shown above, for actual studies on the effects of asbestos exposure.

What’s more, with the asbestos manufacturers as the convenient villains, abatement companies present themselves, with equal convenience, as white knights. But they can just as easily — more easily, in fact — be seen as parasites cashing in on the hysteria. The abatement industry grew from a $200 million a year industry in 1983 to one with revenues topping $2.7 billion in 1988.

Magazines like American School and University are filled with asbestos-abatement advertisements posing as public interest articles. (The biggest type in one such ad reads, "IT’S THE LAW, " for which, as in the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, the unspoken antecedent is: "It may sound stupid to you, but . . .")

Leafing through Asbestos Issues, you find articles like the one by the executive director of the Mid-America Association of Asbestos Contractors, Jack Hart, who praises his fellow abaters for their compassion. Many such, Hart says, will advise their clients to abate asbestos now, without waiting for an EPA order (which, of course, may never come). And the recommended course of action, naturally, is the more costly removal rather thin mere encapsulization. "I say don’t take the risk. Get the stuff out."

The hysteria is also fueled by the media, which can always be counted on to sensationalize. "Discovering That Their Home Is Walled With Asbestos, a Florida Family Flees the Dangerous Dust, " ran the title of one short People magazine story. Noting that some asbestos-related lung cancer may not develop for decades, the piece ends: "More disturbing than the loss of a home is the prospect of a future tainted with doubt."

USA Today always leads the nation’s newspapers in alarmism, and asbestos has proved no exception: "There’s a killer in the corridors, gyms, or boiler rooms of 40,000 schools across the USA," it recently shrieked.

Good Housekeeping magazine, with a circulation of five million, ran an article titled, "I Saved My Family from Asbestos Contamination," by a woman who found some asbestos wrapped around the furnace pipes in her home. She reported suffering "many sleepless nights wondering if asbestos particles hadn’t already escaped into the air and endangered my family." She simply couldn’t understand why the various authorities and firms she contacted did not share her trepidation over the "death-dealing material."

Only at the very end of the story, as an afterthought, does she reveal that subsequent tests showed that no asbestos fibers had been released into the air. And where had the woman first heard of asbestos’s dangers? In an earlier article in Good Housekeeping.

And then there’s Congress, where Rep. James Florio has led the pack in abatement alarmism. (Florio is now running for governor of New Jersey against Congressman Jim Courter.) While the NEA has called Florio "courageous" for his advocacy of asbestos abatement, in fact he has been essentially without opposition in Congress. AHERA was passed out of Florio’s committee without dissent and passed both the House and Senate by voice vote.

Florio has said abatement regulation was essential because abatement was already being done and being done poorly — rather like saying that because heroin users are sharing needles, we should mandate that everyone use heroin, so long, of course, as they do it according to strict government standards. People will indeed still remove asbestos, owing to market pressures or simply to fear.

The proper way of dealing with this is either to forbid the removal or to require that whatever removal occurs be done according to strict regulation. Ordering removal, as AHERA does and as a related law for non-school buildings would, doesn’t address the problem of slipshod abatement any more than ordering airlines to fly planes resolves problems of air safety.

Yet Florio does not operate alone. AHERA was signed into law by the supposedly anti-regulation Reagan White House without so much as a hint of a veto, and, as noted, was introduced in the Senate by a Republican, Robert Stafford. And the ranking Republican on Florio’s committee, Norman Lent of New York, was a co-sponsor of AHERA.

The Sleeping Dog

As one scientist, writing on the op-ed page of USA Today, put it: "Asbestos is like a big sleeping dog. If not stirred up, it does no harm. If hammered or sawed upon, it may bite anyone near it." The best way of dealing with asbestos in school buildings and workplaces is the way most homes with asbestos are dealt with: leave the material alone unless there is a special reason for it to be disturbed.

To this end, it is good that the EPA ordered schools to identify the location of asbestos, both to prevent disturbance and to provide warning of possible dust dispersal if a disturbance does take place. Identification and management should probably be supplemented with periodic air sampling. If sampling shows dangerous levels of airborne asbestos, then and only then is removal or encapsulization warranted. (This assumes that EPA will finally set an air quality standard for asbestos, which it has not yet done.) Such testing is not cheap: about $600 for electron microscopy, the most accurate type of testing. But compared to abatement, it’s a real bargain. And mass production of monitoring equipment could drive prices down.

Several states have recently adopted air sampling as part of their regulatory apparatus. Florida, for example, has established an abatement "action level" of 0.01 fibers per cubic centimeter, using a tiered system of optical and electron microscopy techniques. EPA argues that air sampling is unreliable because it only provides a "snapshot" which doesn’t take into account peak exposures when asbestos is disturbed. But that is why special precautions are taken to make sure it isn’t disturbed.

If a janitor running a broom across a ceiling disturbs asbestos, then janitors should be told not to do that. If bouncing a basketball against a gym ceiling disturbs fibers in the tiles (a favorite fanciful scenario of the abatement enthusiasts-how often do basketballs hit ceilings, and how much asbestos is going to be released with one hit?), then kids should be told not to do that. It’s not a perfect solution. It’s simply the most cost-effective and the safest. Leave the sleeping dog alone. It will save lives and perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars. That should be worth something, shouldn’t it?

How Great is the Risk of low-level Exposure to Asbestos?

Study after study and expert after expert on the risks of low-level exposure to asbestos fibers have affirmed that this risk is virtually non-existent. To name a few:

  • 1985, "Effects on Health of Exposure to Asbestos," by Sir Richard Doll, the Oxford University researcher who is given credit for demonstrating the link between lung cancer and smoking, and University of London Professor Julian Peto, a world authority on asbestos-related cancers.
    Found that in a typical asbestos-containing building, "for a working week in an office for 20 years or for 10 years or so at school, or to lower average levels for more prolonged times at home, is calculated to produce a lifetime risk of death of one in 100,000." The report stated that asbestos in buildings is responsible for "approximately one death a year" in the whole of Britain. (Great Britain is about one-fifth the size of the United States in population.)
  • 1986, "Asbestos Exposure-Quantitative Assessment of Risk," by Dr. Hans Weill and Janet Hughes at Tulane University, in New Orleans.
    Puts the risk figure for school exposure at an "upper estimate’ of "an average annual rate of approximately 0.25 deaths per million exposed" as compared to, for ample, 1,200 deaths per million for long-term smoking and one death per million for living two months with a cigarette smoker and inhaling second-hand smoke. For that matter, the danger of playing high school football is a good deal greater than the danger of inhaling asbestos in that same school ... 10 deaths per million students.
  • 1988, article in Fortune magazine, by Louis Richman citing Dr. Robert Sawyer, a leading researcher on asbestos health effects and an occupational health advisor to the EPA and to major corporate clients.
    Concluded that while maintenance workers who are exposed to asbestos and also smoke cigarettes may be especially susceptible to lung cancer, for all other office workers, "There is no epidemiological evidence that shows a health hazard. Period."
  • 1986, "Asbestos and Other Natural Mineral Fibers," by the World Health Organization.
    "In the general population, the risks of mesothelioma and lung cancer attributable to asbestos cannot be quantified reliably and are probably undetectably low."
  • 1984, "Report of the Royal Commission on Matters of Health and Safety Arising from the Use of Asbestos In Ontario."
    "Even a building whose air has a fiber level up to 10 times greater than that found in typical outdoor air would create a risk of fatality that was less than one-fiftieth the risk of having a fatal automobile accident while driving to and from the building." Further, " [W]e deem the risk which asbestos poses to building occupants to be insignificant and therefore find that asbestos in building air will almost never pose a health hazard to building occupants."
  • 1984, "Interim Report to the Governor," by the State of New Jersey Asbestos Policy Committee
    Concurred with the conclusion of the Ontario Commission. "There are no documented cases of lung cancer associated with low-level asbestos exposure over a lifetime. Risk assessment models used to determine the incidence of cancers predict very low levels. "
    "Theoretically, one asbestos fiber could cause mesothelioma, but this is very unlikely to be the case in non-occupational settings." It further stated, "The estimated lung cancer mortality rates due to nonoccupational asbestos exposures were found to be about 10,000 times lower than the rates due to tobacco smoking."
  • 1986, entry in the Medical and Health Annual of the Encyclopedia Britannica, by Dr. Ronald G. Crystal.
    "Currently there is no evidence that the levels of the airborne asbestos found in public buildings, such as schools, present a hazard."

PUBLISHED ESTIMATES OF RISK FROM VARIOUS CAUSES (MAINLY U.S. DATA)'

Cause Voluntary(V) or Involuntary(I) Lifetime Risk of Premature Death
(per 100,000)
Smoking (all causes) V 21,900
Smoking (cancer only) V 8,800
Motor Vehicle I 1,600
Frequent Airline Passenger V/1 730
Coal Mining Accidents I/V 441
Indoor Radon V/I 400
Motor Vehicle - Pedestrian I 290
Environmental Tobacco Smoke/Living with a Smoker I/V 200
Diagnostic X-rays 1 75
Cycling Deaths I/V 75
Consuming Miami or New Orleans Drinking Water I 7
Lightning I 3
Hurricanes I 3
Asbestos in School Buildings I 1

'Sources of Risk Estimate: Commins (1985), Weill and Hughes (1986), Wilson and Crouch (1982)

Reprinted from "Summary of Symposium on Health Aspects of Exposure to Asbestos in Buildings" published by Harvard University Energy and Environmental Policy Center, August 1989.

Read an abbreviated version of this article from Reader’s Digest, January 1990.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on asbestos and on cancer. Michael Fumenton is the author of numerous books, including Science Under Siege.