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Panel Urges Help For Schools With Asbestos Problems

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Washington--A federally sponsored task force on asbestos in the schools, meeting for the first time since 1980, has concluded that the problem remains much the same as it was several years ago. The first step toward a solution, the members agreed, is finding out what school officials--still faced with limited budgets and insufficient technical know-how--view as the most difficult aspects of the problem.

Several members, although favoring the requirement that school officials check for the presence of asbestos, were critical of other aspects of the inspection program as it has been carried out during the Reagan Administration.

The 10-member advisory group, which includes scientific and technical experts from five federal agencies as well as five scientists and representatives of other levels of government, was established under the Asbestos School Hazard Detection and Control Act of 1980. (See Education Week, Oct. 5, 1983.) The panelists, who were appointed by the Secretary of Education, are responsible for compiling and disseminating information on the effects of asbestos on health; providing technical information on testing, sampling, and identifying the substance; and advising the Secretary of Education on asbestos standards. Since 1980, the Environmental Protection Agency has been the source of most technical advice.

After meeting several times in 1980, the group remained "dormant" until recently--largely because the Congress did not provide any funds for asbestos control, but also because the problem did not have a high priority for the department, according to Education Department officials. Should such funds be forthcoming, the group would also be responsible for reviewing applications for federal grants and loans.

Four Key Areas

Although the group took no formal vote on recommendations, its discussion during last week's two-day meeting focused on four key areas:

Determining which aspects of the problems school officials encounter in dealing with asbestos--for example, the assessment of potential hazard and the pressure to take action--are the most difficult.

Reviewing the materials now available from the Environmental Protection Agency to determine whether they reflect current scientific and medical opinion.

Deciding which of those materials would be best suited for dissemination.

Establishing key "audiences" for information on asbestos and determining which materials are best suited to each group.

In the three years that have elapsed since the panel last met, the situation faced by school officials has changed in some ways. Under an epa regulation, districts were required by June 28 to inspect schools for friable, or crumbling, asbestos and to notify parents and staff members by that date if the substance had been found and not removed or otherwise controlled. Recently, the epa announced that its 10 regional offices may send out press releases to local media when schools are not in compliance with some aspect of the regulation.

Potentially Serious Hazard

But in other ways, the problem remains much as it was several years ago, task-force members suggested. Still hampered by lack of funds and technical know-how, school officials are trying to act responsibly in dealing with a substance whose presence may pose a potentially serious hazard.

Their ability to do so, several task-force members contended, has been hampered by several factors and may be further jeopardized by the epa's "press-release strategy."

"I think requiring inspection and sampling is probably very appropriate, because the tendency is to run away from the problem," said Anthony R. Smith, who spent three years directing the asbestos-control effort for the New York City Board of Education and is now assistant commissioner of the New York City Department of Finance's real-property assessment bureau.

Although keeping the public abreast of the issue is very important, Mr. Smith added, the use of press releases could lead to public panic, which in turn could cause school officials to overreact and take action that might increase the exposure of students and employees to the substance.

"We may run the risk of starting again something that was incipient in 1978--a concern that may become a panic," Mr. Smith said.

Seriously Hampered Progress

Several members also criticized Anne M. Burford, the former administrator of the epa, for her 1981 reassignment of several staff members in the asbestos-in-the-schools program to other programs. That action, they contend, seriously hampered the program's progress.

"They had the basis of a very good, responsible program," said Robert Sawyer, head of the preventive and occupational medicine department at the Yale University Health Service. "From there on, we had a lot of tokenism. A lot of effort of good quality was lost." Now, Dr. Sawyer said, "There's a definite lack of leadership."

Dominating the discussion, however, was the issue of how the group can use the resources available to provide school officials with the practical guidance they need to cope with asbestos.

Task-force members who work with school officials agree that, although the situation varies widely from district to district, there is substantial confusion and anxiety among school officials about what constitutes a hazard and about what procedures will best protect the health of students and teachers.

In some areas, Dr. Sawyer noted, school officials are not alone in their uncertainty.

"All of us still feel that there is a tremendous lack of basic information on the potential adverse health effects," he said. "One tremendously negative aspect of all this is that a great deal of anxiety has been generated."

'Lack of Wisdom and Judgment'

Blaming the anxiety, in part, on "a lack of wisdom and judgment by the agencies concerned with dissemination," Dr. Sawyer said that "anxiety is generated mostly on the lack of knowledge and indecision, and that's what's causing a lot of school boards to do the wrong thing."

As examples of "the wrong thing," Dr. Sawyer and others cited the too-hasty removal of asbestos that would not have posed a hazard if left intact. Unnecessary removal processes may expose students and removal workers to a greater hazard.

School officials seek specific guidance to help them avoid such actions. However, task-force members noted that it is frequently impossible to say that one action, such as removal, is definitively better than another, such as encapsulation, without examining the situation firsthand.

"Most of what I hear is, 'Tell me what I should do,"' said Edward A. Klein, director of chemical-control division in the epa's office of toxic substances. "The [epa] guidance document doesn't tell you what to do. In the end, we can't tell you what to do unless we have hands-on inspection."

At the heart of the problem, Mr. Klein said, is the fact that "people who are not trained in dealing with asbestos are being asked to deal with asbestos."

Asbestos Hotline

With its next meeting tentatively scheduled for January, the task force will begin gathering and reviewing those materials now available and discussing who should receive them.

To help identify key problems, the group, the department, and the epa will examine questions posed to the epa asbestos hotline and the issues raised in state asbestos-control plans.

They may also work with education groups such as the National School Boards Association.

Members agreed that, in deciding which informational materials are best, they should take into account the diffuse decision-making process inherent in school systems. Hence, one publication might be suitable for physical-plant supervisors who need specific technical advice, and another might be useful to parents whose children attend a school where asbestos has been found.

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