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The Toxic Quandary: How To React On 'Every Hazard Known to Man'

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For some school officials, the Environmental Protection Agency's recent recommendations that they inspect all buildings for possibly high levels of radon gas and lead in drinking water were eerily reminiscent of the asbestos problem.

As with asbestos, they were told that the two substances were nationally prevalent health hazards and that testing programs for them should be instituted as soon as possible.

But, in a further parallel to the decade-long asbestos dilemma, schools were once again, the officials say, given a new responsibility with neither the resources nor the training to handle it.

"We're being held responsible for every health hazard known to mankind," said Gwendolyn Gregory, the deputy legal counsel for the National School Boards Association.

Although federal law does not now require schools to test for radon or lead, the epa's highly publicized recommendations last month have put school officials on the hot seat, many say.

Those in the process of completing federally required asbestos inspections and management plans by this month's deadline now find themselves again trying to balance the safety needs of students and personnel against their limited budgets and technical expertise.

"I think it's something that has come to be expected by schools," said Virginia Vertis, a government-relations specialist for the American Association of School Administrators. "We're told that there is a problem, but we're given no money or technical assistance."

"We just went through this same kind of crazy business with asbestos," complained Edward R. Kealy, director of federal programs for the nsba "What are we going to have to inspect l6'Very Hollow Commitment'

In its two separate announcements concerning school-based environmental hazards, the epa has raised both the level of public consciousness and the amount of confusion surrounding these newly emerging health issues.

On April 20, the agency's administrator, William K. Reilly, said at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington that all schools should test for radon, based on the results of a preliminary epa study. (See Education Week, April 26, 1989.)

The week before, agency officials had released at a press conference a list of water coolers that contain lead or lead-lined tanks. At that time, the epa urged all schools to test for lead, using the agency's new guidance document. (See Education Week, April 19, 1989.)

Agency officials said the threat posed by both radon and lead is national in scope. Exposure to radon has been linked to lung cancer, and scientists have proved that young children who consume even small amounts of lead may become physically or mentally impaired.

Both initiatives came in response to legislation adopted by the Congress last year. Little or no money, however, was earmarked for schools; the Congress authorized, but did not appropriate, $30 million for an omnibus lead program, and schools will have to compete with other agencies if they wish to apply for a share of the $8 million to be split up among the states for radon testing.

Moreover, new guidelines for lead and radon testing will not automatically be sent to schools. In most states, educators must write their regional epa office or state lead and radon offices for these documents. (See box on this page.)

In light of this low level of financial and technical support, some have criticized the agency for urging all schools to begin testing programs, especially for radon.

"I think they were premature as hell," said an administrator at one of the schools tested in the epa radon study, who asked not to be named. "More consideration should have been given to the possible overresponse by the public."

The administrator said his district had not received the results of its tests before the announcement was made, and that tests were still being conducted at the school to fine-tune methods of measuring the gas.

"Epa needs to get real," said John DeVillars, the Massachusetts secretary of environmental affairs, in comments to the Boston Globe confirmed last week by his office.

"It's all well and good to set high standards and require environmental-protection steps," he said, "but it's a very hollow commitment if it's not backed up by the funding necessary to carry it out."

'Waste of Money'

Others have also accused the agency of overreacting to the results of its radon survey. Agency officials acknowledge that many of the 130 schools studied in 16 states were selected because of their proximity to an epa regional office or because it was believed the school would have a high radon reading.

The state health director in California, Kennett W. Kizer, said in a statement that "testing every classroom in this state would be a marked waste of money."

He said that in a "careful study" of 29 schools from around the state, not a single reading above the epa's recommended "action level" of 4 picocuries per liter was found.

In response to these criticisms, agency officials said that not enough is known about the gas to pinpoint all of the country's potential hot spots for radon.

"What we know is that radon is available at high levels across the country," said Margo T. Oge, director of the epa's radon office. "We don't know, however, which schools or which houses should not be tested."

Ms. Oge said that the agency was not asking the Congress for any more money for radon testing because "it's unclear right now what position this Administration will pursue."

When asked how schools should decide how to allocate resources between radon and lead testing, she said that "states should decide [their priorities] on a state-by-state basis."

Other epa officials, however, said that preliminary testing in some parts of the country does indicate that some areas will not have a significant radon problem.

"Quite frankly, within our region, we have not come up with high readings in our schools or in individual classrooms," said an official in a western regional office. "We looked on this as something less than an urgent and strident call."

The official, who said that he nonetheless favors widespread testing, added: "We cannot order schools to do it. We cannot pay them to do it. So when we make a recommendation, we think there is a serious reason for it."

'A Test Balloon'

The parallels between asbestos and these newer environmental concerns may be most striking, however, in the emerging pattern of response to federal warnings.

In the late 1970's, observers note, schools were first advised to inspect for asbestos. The Congress made this a requirement in the early 1980's, but many schools did not comply, because of weak enforcement provisions.

The new asbestos law, adopted in 1986, requires schools to both inspect for the cancer-causing fibers and take steps to remove or contain it. Schools that fail to meet the law's deadlines can face fines of up to $5,000 a day. In addition, the law created a complicated set of regulations and standards for all aspects of asbestos work.

Similar requirements may be needed to handle lead and radon work, some are now arguing. Because testing for either hazard is not required, they said, some schools may decide to put it off as long as possible, without fear of being fined.

Arnold F. Fege, director of government relations for the National pta, predicts that, as there was with the initial asbestos recommendation, a "patchwork of compliance and noncompliance" with the new lead and radon directives will be forthcoming.

"Dick Reilly has thrown down the gauntlet and said, 'Okay, folks, how far do you want to go?"' Mr. Fege said. "He probably set out a test balloon."

These voluntary recommendations assume, he and others point out, that parents and unions will pressure schools to conduct the tests.

"What the epa is doing is appealing directly to the average citizen and parents with the brief and unsettling message that your school in unsafe," said Mr. Kealy of the nsba "This is not the way to carry out and administer a policy of making schools a safe environment for learning, through press releases."

"I really wonder what the quality controls are when I can go into a local Giant [supermarket] and get a radon canister for $9," he added. "I think we need more guidance and technical assistance before everyone starts running around with charcoal canisters."

'Obligation To Test'

Educators and legal experts also said that just as schools may one day be held liable for a former student's or employee's asbestosis, they may also have to fend off suits involving injury due to radon or lead exposure.

"It's easy to show a high level of lead in a kid," said Allen Kanner, a Philadelphia lawyer who specializes in environmental issues.

"I think every lawyer in the country would tell you that [schools] have an obligation to test," Mr. Kanner added. "If they don't do it, and somebody gets hurt, they would be opening themselves up for serious liability."

The lawyer predicted that a class action would be filed against the makers of water coolers with lead or lead-lined tanks.

Few Parent Complaints

School officials, meanwhile, said they have so far received very few calls from parents about lead or radon. Many said they had already begun to test for lead, and were awaiting further guidance before they started radon testing.

Maurice E. Sullivan, the superintendent of the Wauwatosa, Wis., school district, said his district was hesitant to start radon testing because in the past, it had wasted time and money on asbestos tests that were considered to be inadequate by subsequent state and federal regulations.

"We've been through that cut once," he said, "and we're more nonreactive to a purely media complaint."

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