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Critics Ask E.P.A. To Require Asbestos Removal

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Washington--The Environmental Protection Agency's policy of encouraging voluntary abatement of asbestos in schools and public buildings is "inadequate" and has been "ineffective" in eliminating the asbestos problem in schools, union officials, parents, and medical specialists charged at a public hearing held by the agency here last week. The speakers called on federal officials to develop a federal asbestos-abatement rule and standards governing the removal of friable, or crumbling, asbestos from schools.

Keith Geiger, vice president of the National Education Association, said epa's policy of requiring that school employees and parents be notified of asbestos hazards "has failed to achieve its ultimate objective--abatement of the hazard" to millions of students and teachers in 14,000 schools.

'Negative Effect'

Mr. Geiger said the rule "may actually have had a negative effect," lulling the agency, which has the authority to establish abatement rules, "into believing that no further regulatory initiatives on its part were necessary."

"Many school districts have refrained from notifying their employees and [parent-teacher groups] that a hazard exists," the union official added, "apparently for fear that they then would have to expend the money, time, and effort to eliminate the hazard--commitments they were not prepared to meet."

He cited a December 1983 preliminary report by an internal management-review team at the epa that indicated, he said, that "where school boards have been left to their own devices, free of any abatement obligations, they have not taken steps to abate the asbestos hazard."

Series of Hearings

Last week's hearing was the first of a series of regional hearings the epa will hold concerning the establishment of an asbestos-abatement rule. (Others are scheduled in Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago.) The hearings were planned by epa officials after the Service Employees International Union petitioned the agency last November to issue an abatement requirement.

"We believe the overriding constraint preventing abatement of asbestos in schools and other buildings is the failure of the epa to issue an abatement rule that requires control of hazardous asbestos situations in a safe and complete manner," said William K. Borwegen, director of occupational safety and health for the seiu, which represents 850,000 workers, including 100,000 school employees.

Actions Called 'Aggressive'

But Alvin L. Alm, deputy administrator of the epa, defended his agency's position at the hearing and said that it is continuing to "deal with aggressiveness" with the asbestos problem.

Since June 1983, when schools were asked to come into compliance with inspection and reporting requirements, the agency has conducted two program reviews, "doubled staff resources" for the containment program, more than doubled the number of consultants employed in the program, "dramatically" increased the number of building inspections, and spoken to various groups, Mr. Alm said.

In addition, he said, the agency has adopted, in principle, regulatory standards in several areas recommended by the seiu They include standards to determine when friable asbestos is hazardous, what corrective action is necessary, and what procedures to use for inspection and abatement.

Moreover, Mr. Alm said, the agency plans "in the next few days" to adopt standards governing the protection of workers.

Among other initiatives, he said, the agency will develop a pilot program to train school superintendents, building owners, architects, custodial workers, and others to deal with the asbestos problem. If successful, the program would be extended to 10 regional offices around the country, Mr. Alm said.

He also said that the epa is in the process of completing two national surveys to "get a good idea of the magnitude of the problem."

Asbestos 'Time Bomb'

But other speakers at the hearing responded that the longer the agency takes to study the problem without issuing abatement regulations, the longer teachers, students, and school workers will be exposed to the health hazards.

"I am not saying that any person in a school with friable asbestos is endangering his or her life every moment," Mr. Geiger argued. "However, at any time, commonplace daily occurrences--a ball hitting a gym wall, students running, or ordinary custodial activity--can trigger the release of asbestos fibers into the air, and this makes the continued presence of friable asbestos a time bomb."

"We don't need more research, we need more control. Ultimately, what you do is to decide who will live and who will die," said Irving Selikoff, director of the environmental sciences laboratory at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and an authority on asbestos who testified as a consultant for the nea

Recommendations for Action

The labor leaders proposed a series of recommendations for immediate action.

Along with the promulgation of a federal asbestos-abatement rule, Mr. Borwegan of the seiu said, "stringent standards must be established governing the performance of abatement activities, so that workers involved in these efforts will be adequately protected."

Mr. Borwegan called for adoption of regulations that would constitute "minimal requirements" necessary to protect the safety and health of workers and students.

His proposals would require that the identification and removal of asbestos be conducted only by specially trained personnel, that complete removal of friable asbestos be the primary method of abatement, that qualified individuals be named to monitor all aspects of asbestos-abatement activities, and that the epa review all aspects of the removal plans before activity starts to ensure that necessary safeguards have been set up.

He also called for the establishment of "quality assurance committees" comprising representatives of all affected parties, adequate worker protections and work-practice requirements during abatement activities, continuous air sampling during and immediately following abatement activities, and a requirement mandating documentation of inspection and abatement activities.

"At a minimum," the union leader said, the epa "should immediately train at least 100 individuals who can act as technical advisors to counsel building owners and local school districts on how to evaluate and control asbestos hazards."

According to Mr. Geiger, the nea recommends that all school buildings be inspected and that reports be furnished on friable asbestos that is found; that friable materials be analyzed; and that abatement action using epa-approved methods and certified personnel be completed and verified by an epa regional office.

nea also recommends that a complaint procedure be established for cases in which hazards have not been removed, that periodic spot-check inspections be conducted by epa regional officials in a representative number of schools, that records on abatement procedures be kept for a period of five years, and that warning signs be posted noting existing hazards and when they are to be abated, Mr. Geiger said.

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