U.S. Asbestos Efforts Said Undercut by Lack of Clear Rules
Washington--The federal programs created to help schools cope with the potential hazards of asbestos have provided "no assurance that school occupants are being adequately protected or that abatement actions being taken are necessary," according to a report released last week by the General Accounting Office.
The report, Asbestos in Schools: A Dilemma, concludes that the three programs administered by two federal agencies have been inadequate on several counts. But perhaps the key omission of the programs, ac-cording to the report, was the failure to provide school officials with the guidelines necessary to resolve their "basic dilemma" of deciding whether to remove the substance.
Progress Report Prepared
The General Accounting Office (gao), the investigative arm of the Congress, prepared the report on the "progress of federal efforts to reduce asbestos in the schools" at the request of Representatives George Miller, Democrat of California, and James J. Florio, Democrat of New Jersey. Both the Environmental Protection Agency (epa) and the Education Department (ed) are responsible for some programs.
Asbestos was widely used as a fireproofing and soundproofing material until the early 1970's, when its use was prohibited. Fibers of "friable," or crumbling, asbestos have been linked to a number of serious respiratory diseases.
Based on a survey of 11 states, the gao report examines the impact of three federal programs: the epa's technical-assistance program and inspection requirements and Education Department efforts mandated under the Asbestos School Hazard Detection and Control Act of 1980.
The environmental agency's technical-assistance program has been only a "limited success," the investigators concluded. Established in 1979 to identify and eliminate asbestos hazards in schools, the voluntary program did prompt some districts to inspect for asbestos and, in some cases, to remove it. But 21 percent of the public schools in the 11 states surveyed remained uninspected, the investigators found.
In addition, their report states, "the program's effectiveness has been limited by its voluntary nature and its lack of criteria defining when asbestos is hazardous and what type of abatement is needed." As a result, some of the inspections were of questionable quality, and the criteria used to determine whether the substance should be removed varied widely, according to the report.
Lacking standards, the investigators note, some school officials succumbed to public pressure and removed asbestos that in fact presented no particular danger.
For example, school officials in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia told the gao staff members that they had "abated asbestos conditions that they did not consider hazardous because of media and parental pressure."
Other districts have decided to delay any action until the epa decides what constitutes a hazard, the investigators found. In Houston, for example, where inspections turned up asbestos in 115 of 232 schools, administrators have said that they will not remove any of the substance until they have firmer criteria, according to the report.
The agency does provide "some guidance on various factors to con-sider when making abatement decisions," it notes, but a study showed that the factors were not a reliable means of distinguishing between hazardous and safe asbestos.
The epa is in the process of developing new criteria, but cannot yet predict when they might be incorporated into its programs.
The epa regulation issued in May, which requires that schools be inspected for asbestos by June 1983, also fails to meet the needs of school officials who must decide whether to remove asbestos, the investigators conclude.
Originally, epa officials planned to issue two regulations. The first would require inspection for asbestos; the second would require "abatement." Abatement includes removing, encapsulating, and installing barriers around asbestos, as well as directing school occupants to avoid areas or activities that would dislodge asbestos and cause it to crumble.
epa officials decided in April 1981, however, that they would not proceed with the abatement regulation, according to the report. The officials reasoned that after schools were inspected and parents and staff members were notified, school administrators would have enough information to allow them to take corrective action on their own.
But the lack of firm standards will continue to impede progress toward removing the hazards, the gao report concludes. "Until epa develops such criteria," the investigators write, "we believe that school officials may continue to overreact and spend money needlessly or, more importantly, underreact and expose school occupants to hazardous asbestos conditions in the schools."
The Asbestos School Hazard Detection and Control Act of 1980 has also been ineffective, the investigators conclude. "Overall," they write, "[the act] has had little impact."
The act required the Education Department to develop several programs. One of them, a grant and loan program intended to provide schools with money to inspect for and control asbestos, was never funded. The department's request for funds was denied by the Office of Management and Budget, and, lacking money to carry it out, "Education relegated the program to a low priority," the gao report says.
The legislation also required the ed to revise epa guidelines for determining when asbestos should be abated in schools. But because the department never completed the revision, it "did not resolve the dilemma facing school officials: When should asbestos be abated in their schools?"
The act also provided for the collection of information on the extent of the problem. School officials were required to keep records of inspection and abatement actions and to report them to the state.
This clause of the act was intended to coincide with the epa rule requiring inspection. But since the agency did not issue its inspection rule until 16 months after the Education Department's rule took effect, local officials had no standards for inspection. Hence, the gao investigators conclude, "state records were incomplete because they were based on limited inspections of questionable quality."
Since the epa does plan to issue criteria on when asbestos should be removed, the gao did not issue recommendations with the report.