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The Asbestos Dilemma

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In recent months and weeks, issues surrounding the presence of asbestos in school buildings have become explosive for many school officials across the nation. Community-relations problems have followed on the heels of health and financial questions, as public anxiety about the situation grows.

The federal government has levied fines on 43 school districts nationwide for failing to inspect for asbestos or to notify parents of their findings. An announcement by a New Jersey agency that nearly 200 schools involved in cleanups might not be safe to open this month touched off frantic activity by officials and cries of protest from parents. In the District of Columbia, a television reporter concluded a series of reports on the problem of asbestos in schools by urging viewers to demand more information from school officials on the status of the school district's inspection and removal program.

But while the public pressures continue to mount, no one can yet say with any degree of accuracy how many schools have a serious asbestos problem. The Environmental Protection Agency, in an estimate that more than doubles earlier government figures, now says 31,000 schools nationwide contain asbestos, but not necessarily the dangerous friable, or crumbling, type. In California, however, a state survey found that 3,000 of the 7,000 public-school buildings contained the friable type.

Neither government officials nor scientists are yet able or willing to provide clear guidance about the degree of hazard posed by friable asbestos. While virtually all agree that exposure--even at relatively low levels--can lead to fatal diseases, there is little concurrence about the precise, long-term risks for schoolchildren.

Amid the confusion and uncertainty, school officials nonetheless have felt obliged to act or to plan to take corrective action. But what they should do and how they should do it are questions yet to be answered adequately, many school leaders charge.

There are no federal regulations governing the removal of asbestos; the Environmental Protection Agency provides only guidelines and does not, in fact, require any corrective action.

The dilemma for school boards and school administrators is that if they do not address the "asbestos problem," they may face harsh community criticism at best and litigation at worst; but if they move hastily to remove the asbestos, they may make matters worse, since there is growing evidence that removal efforts by contractors who are improperly trained and equipped can actually increase the amount of airborne asbestos, and thus the danger.

The costs of doing the job correctly, moreover, may be prohibitive for school districts, which have already complained bitterly to the federal government that they do not have the funds for containment or removal efforts. The U.S. Congress recently approved a $600-million, seven-year program to help fund the removal of asbestos from public and private schools, and has appropriated $50 million thus far. But in California alone, the cost of asbestos removal could run as high as $90 million according to estimates. The Education Department has estimated that the overall cost of removing asbestos from schools would be $1.4 billion.

In the following pages, Education Week examines the nature of the asbestos problem and the debates among medical, governmental, and asbestos experts that have caught educators squarely in the middle.

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