The Asbestos Rip-Off

By Michael Fumento

Reader’s Digest, January 1990
Copyright 1990 by Reader’s Digest

  Print this  Print this    Make text larger    Make text smaller

After an inspection on the spring of 1987, J. Eugene McAteer High School in San Francisco was discovered to be virtually loaded with asbestos: all the ceiling beams and tiles had been coated when the building was constructed in 1973.

McAteer’s students were transferred to another school, and the board of education authorized $10 million to clear the asbestos. It was a year and a half before students could return. And thanks to overruns, the total cost of the asbestos removal, including renovations, had risen to $18 million.

But two recent scientific reports indicate that McAteer High students were probably in no danger from asbestos exposure and never would be. Instead, they — and the taxpayers of San Francisco — were victims of what could end up as one of the biggest regulatory boondoggles in U.S. history. Its costs may well run into the hundreds of billions of dollars nationwide. Worse it could cause more deaths than it prevents.

35,000 Headaches

The safety of asbestos was first questioned in the 1920s after asbestosis, an often fatal scarring of the lungs, became widely recognized. Later, asbestos was linked to lung cancer in textile workers, particularly among those who smoked cigarettes. The fibrous mineral is estimated to cause 10,000 deaths in the United States each year, with disease lagging up to 40 years behind exposure.

Since the late 1960s, asbestos has fallen under increasing regulation. In 1982 schools were required by law to inspect for asbestos. In 1986 Congress passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), ordering "abatement" to begin by July 9, 1989, in every U.S. school judged to be unsafe — an estimated 35,000 buildings. Abatement involves the enclosure, encapsulation, repair or removal of the asbestos.

According to AHERA, friable (readily crumbled by hand) asbestos-containing materials that have been damaged must be abated. Those with a "potential" for damage, even if firmly embedded in ceilings, walls and duct work, must either be abated or managed with "preventive measures."

Asbestos was commonly used in school construction until the 1970s. Many schools have asbestos in ceiling tiles, acoustical plaster, pipe insulation and fireproofing materials. The cost of removing it would be staggering. State auditors estimated that abatement in California schools alone would cost at least $500 million. The National School Boards Association reckons total public-school abatement costs at more than $6 billion. Private and parochial schools, unable to fund bonding measures, might be forced to shut down.

School abatement is only the beginning. A similar bill, now in Congress, would mandate inspection and abatement of asbestos in all government buildings. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) projects the cost of abatement for all public and commercial buildings at $51 billion, but evidence suggests this estimate is low. For example, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey expects to pay $1 billion for abatement of its 30 facilities alone. According to Stephen L. Schweich, an environmental industry analyst with Alex. Brown & Sons, Inc., abatement costs could be around $100 billion nationally over the next 25 years.

Can a Single Fiber Kill?

Whatever the price, it is worth paying, we are told, because abatement will prevent the grisly deaths of thousands of Americans, especially schoolchildren.

In fact, the issue is not that simple. First, the EPA maintains that visual inspections should determine which materials need to be abated. But as Michael Gough, an asbestos specialist, points out, the EPA’s own tests prove that visual inspection is poor predictor of how much asbestos is actually in the air. Air monitoring, in which samples were inspected by microscope, might show that many buildings don’t need abatement. But the EPA has declined to set an acceptable exposure level in buildings with such monitoring.

Second, while constant exposure to high levels of asbestos dust can indeed cause serious medical problems, low-level exposure is an entirely different matter.

Proponents of abatement claim that even the tiniest exposure carries a risk of disease. "A single asbestos fiber," one reads in abatement literature, "can kill you."

There is no evidence for this. Every day we are exposed to countless substances such as arsenic, cyanide and mercury. In high enough doses, these would prove fatal, yet in trace amounts they have virtually no adverse effect.

The "single fiber" assertions rest on the premise that asbestos is an alien substance that the body simply can’t handle. In fact, all of us are exposed to some level of this naturally occurring mineral every day in the air, in water, in food.

Generally, inhaled asbestos fibers do not reach the lower respiratory tract but are removed by the lung’s continuously moving mucous lining. A miner or shipyard worker, breathing in huge quantities of asbestos for decades, may have large amounts getting past his body’s defense system. Yet the lung tissue of healthy adults who have not been exposed in the workplace can contain millions of asbestos fibers.

Measuring Dangers

How great is the risk of low-level exposure to asbestos? A number of governmental and scientific authorities have concluded that the risk in buildings is close to zero. Sir Richard Doll is an Oxford researcher who is given credit for demonstrating a link between lung cancer and smoking. Doll and University of London Prof. Julian Peto, an authority on asbestos-related cancers, estimated that asbestos in buildings is responsible for "approximately one death per year" in the whole of Great Britain (which is about one-fourth the size of the United States in population).

Hans Weill, M.D., and Janet M. Hughes of Tulane University in New Orleans put the annual risk figure for school exposure at an upper estimate of "approximately 0.25 deaths per million exposed." The risk of playing high-school football — ten deaths per million — is thus a good deal greater than the danger of inhaling asbestos in school.

Most recently, epidemiological studies have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine and by the Harvard University Energy and Environmental Policy Center. Both conclude that there is little evidence of increased risk of lung cancer in persons exposed to asbestos concentrations "several hundred or thousand times lower" than those workers inhaled decades ago. In fact, most workplace concentrations are tens of thousands of times lower today.

For the most part, abatement advocates ignore these studies. The danger, they attest, is so clear and present that batting around figures is a waste of time. "There is no doubts that asbestos in our nation’s schools is placing our children at considerable risk," declared Rep. Norman F. Lent (R., N.Y.), cosponsor of AHERA and in 1985 the ranking Republican on the Subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation and Tourism. "In our view," went a statement by the American Federation of Teachers to that subcommittee, "the presence of friable asbestos in our schools is a danger to the health and well-being of millions of students."

One of the highest estimates of the fatality rate from low-level asbestos exposure comes from a 1988 EPA study. It predicts that among the tens of millions of people who will circulate through all public and commercial buildings with damaged asbestos, 2530 asbestos-related deaths will result over the next 130 years. Yet the worst airborne asbestos levels in the EPA’s building sample were no higher than the levels found in outside air! And you can’t abate the great outdoors.

Even granting EPA estimates, the risk experienced by attending a school for ten years with 0.001 fiber of asbestos per milliliter (an amount actually higher than in most schools with asbestos) would be less than the risk a person runs of absorbing radiation from living in a brick house or breathing the air in urban areas.

Real Victims

Asbestos abatement usually means scraping walls, ceilings. and beams square foot by square foot. Federal regulations require that the thousands or workers performing abatement use respirators and wear outfits resembling spacesuits, but lung injury remains a severe problem. In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that, even following strict standards, there will be almost seven casualties per 1000, a proportionately higher number of deaths per year than that estimated for building occupants.

But many contractors don’t obey OSHA or EPA standards. Stories abound of workers who have been duped into believing asbestos removel was just a routine job requiring no mask or special clothing. In San Antonio, 166 worker sued three corporations that hired them off the street. They claim they were not told that the demolition work involved asbestos removal was dangerous, and all wore little or no protection. The workers received $10,000 each in settlement.

As even pro-abatement force acknowledge, building occupant face the greatest risk of exposure when asbestos is disturbed. Any removal that requires scraping will disperse asbestos into the air. Tests have found exceptionally high level of airborne asbestos after abatement work was completed — in some buildings as much as 100 times higher than before the abatement.

Worse, the rush to abate America has given rise to "rip and skip" abaters. "Their strategy is simple," explained the Kansas City Star. "Underbid the competition, rip out the asbestos quickly, cut regulatory corners, then skip town to the next job before authorities catch up. In one case, state inspectors discovered asbestos dust littering floors and windowsills in a Kansas junior-high school where removal was supposedly finished."

Some "rip and skippers" are caught, but it’s a safe bet that most are not. The EPA has estimated that by the mid-1980s as much as three-fourths of all asbestos abatement in schools had been conducted improperly.

"Asbestos is like a big sleeping dog," says chemist P. J. Wingate. "If not stirred up, it does no harm. If hammered or sawed on, it may bite anyone near it." The best way of dealing with asbestos in schools and workplaces is the way it is dealt with in most homes: leave it alone unless there is a special reason to disturb it.

Eleven states have made air sampling part of their regulations. Some have adopted a maximum exposure level of 0.01 fiber per cubic centimeter; others have chosen different levels. The EPA should set an air quality standard as well. If sampling shows dangerous levels of airborne asbestos, then and only then is abatement warranted. And whatever removal occurs should be done according to strict regulation.

To this end, it is good that Congress ordered schools to identify the location of asbestos, both to prevent disturbance and to warn of disperse if a disturbance does take place. Identification and management should probably be supplemented with periodic air sampling. This isn’t cheap: up to $600 a sample for transmission electron microscopy, the most accurate type of testing. But compared with the costs and dangers of unnecessary batement, it’s a real bargain.

The most cost-effective — and safest — approach, in most cases, is to leave the sleeping dog alone. It will save lives and perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars.

Read the extended version of this article, from the American Spectator, October 1989.

Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on asbestos and on cancer.