Schools Slow In Inspecting For Asbestos
Washington--With two months left until the deadline by which school officials must inspect their buildings for asbestos, about 70 percent of districts nationwide have completed the inspection, according to an Environmental Protection Agency official who testified last week before a House subcommittee.
But testimony from other witnesses at the oversight hearing on asbestos in the schools suggested wide regional variation in compliance with the epa requirement. And both witnesses and committee members expressed considerable doubt about the effectiveness of the two federal measures designed to alleviate the potential hazard to schoolchildren and staff members.
The hearing was convened by the Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education of the House Committee on Education and Labor.
Asbestos was widely used in schools and other buildings as a fire retardant and insulator until the 1970's, when use of sprayed-on asbestos was banned. Inhalation of fibers of friable, or crumbling, asbestos has been linked with a variety of lung disorders, including cancer.
In 1979, in response to the threat that exposure posed for schoolchildren and staff members, the epa began a technical-assistance program designed to help schools determine whether they had an asbestos problem.
In 1980, Congress passed the Asbestos School Hazard Detection and Control Act, which required that states establish reporting, record-keeping, and information programs. The law also included a measure to provide financial assistance for controlling asbestos. That provision, however, has never been funded.
The most recent regulatory effort to address the asbestos problem was promulgated by the epa under the Toxic Substances Control Act in May 1982. The inspections required under that regulation must be completed by June 28 of this year. Parents and staff members must be notified if asbestos is found.
None of the measures requires that asbestos be removed from school buildings.
Edward A. Klein, director of epa's chemical-control division in the office of toxic substances, said that the agency's figures to date--which he stressed are very preliminary--show that 30 percent of U.S. schools have not yet complied with the inspection requirement.
Of the approximately 54,000 schools that have complied, 6,000 have found friable asbestos. Of those, about 3,100 have taken corrective action, Mr. Klein said. He noted that agency officials expect about 10 percent of all public and private schools to report some friable asbestos.
But Dwight Brown, one of 10 regional asbestos coordinators for epa, told the committee members that in the region for which his office is responsible, which includes eight southern states, only about 10 percent of the 12,000 schools have been inspected. Mr. Brown also took issue with Mr. Klein's estimate of the percentage of schools that have asbestos, placing it instead at anywhere from 10 to 30 percent.
Fearful of Consequences
Mr. Brown and other witnesses said that in their experience, many school officials are reluctant to conduct the inspections because they are fearful of the consequences of finding asbestos. Many do not have the funds needed to remove or contain the substance, the witnesses said.
Of those that have found friable asbestos, Mr. Brown said, many have not yet informed parents and staff members, as they are required to do under the epa regulation. He described school officials as "intimidated" by that requirement and said that many would not comply unless forced to do so.
"There's a motivation problem," Mr. Brown said. "There's a belief problem."
The experience of one Tennessee parent, Willa Newport, was typical of what can happen when school officials are confronted with the asbestos problem, Mr. Brown and other witnesses said.
Ms. Newport, who testified at the hearing, paid out of her own pocket for the testing of suspicious materials found in her son's school. In response to heavy parental pressure, the school board voted to close the school. Ms. Newport and other parents urged the superintendent to contact Mr. Brown of the epa office for technical assistance in controlling the asbestos. He did not do so, Ms. Newport said, until two and a half months after the problem was identified.
"The school board and superintendent did not seem to understand how important it was to get experienced, qualified advice," Ms. Newport said.
Neil G. McBride, director of Rural Legal Services of Tennessee, worked with Ms. Newport and other parents in their effort to force school officials to address the asbestos problem. "Despite this unusual degree of parental involvement, and despite tremendous local and even national media attention, students, parents, and teachers still have little assurance that their schools will be adequately tested and that their buildings will be safe next year," Mr. McBride told the subcommittee.
The lawyer cited two central weaknesses in the government's approach to the problem. "The current regulatory plan drastically underestimates the difficulty of bringing local school systems to an understanding of the medical, technical, and legal aspects of this problem," he said. "It does not recognize that many of the systems which have the worst problem will also have the most difficulty in understanding and managing the issue."
The second weakness, Mr. McBride said, is the absence of financial assistance for asbestos removal. Recently, he noted, some officials have argued that school districts can recoup the costs of removal through litigation against the companies involved.
"The legal obstacles to recovery are enormous," he said, "but many school systems will not even get to that point because they will not be able to put themselves in a position to litigate effectively." The poorest systems, which have few resources for removing asbestos, are also unlikely to be able to pay for legal costs, he said.
The problem of cost is just as acute for private schools, according to Rabbi Menachem Lubinsky, director of government and public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, which represents 500 Jewish day schools.
Great Reluctance To Comply
"There is still a great reluctance on the part of many nonpublic-school principals and administrators to comply with the epa rule by inspecting for friable asbestos-containing materials," Rabbi Lubinsky said, "because of the expense of inspection or the fear and misunderstanding generated by the possible presence of potentially hazardous material, the health effects of which may not be readily apparent.
"More significantly, however, is the fear that friable asbestos will be found and the knowledge that there is no money, public or private, for abating the hazard," the rabbi said.
Representative Carl Perkins, Democrat of Kentucky and chairman of the subcommittee, said he would continue to seek funding under the 1980 law. He and other members also called for epa guidelines to help school systems determine the degree of hazard present and the abatement procedure best suited to alleviate it. A recent report from the General Accounting Office criticized the agency for failing to provide such standards, and epa officials indicated in their response to the report that they would try to develop them.
But Mr. Klein of the toxic-substances office said that agency officials had abandoned that plan and had determined that the only way to accurately determine the degree of hazard is to inspect the building.
Subcommittee members also expressed concern that, in the absence of consistent standards for inspection, "compliance" with the regulation would be essentially meaningless. "I understand that you have compliance," said Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, to Mr. Klein. "The question is, what are they complying with?"