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Science Debate Dominates Senate Asbestos Hearing

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Washington--A scientific debate about the health risks posed to school occupants by asbestos fibers dominated a hearing last week on the reauthorization of the federal assistance program for schools undertaking asbestos-removal projects.

The hearing, held by the Senate Subcommittee on Toxic Substances, Environmental Oversight, Research, and Development, served as a forum for those defending and opposing an article on the subject published in the journal Science in January.

The article suggested that the health hazards of the asbestos most common in school buildings have been greatly overstated. (See Education Week, Jan. 31, 1990.)

The scientific testimony overshadowed discussion about the reauthorization of the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act, which was passed by the Congress in 1984.

Since its inception in 1985, the ashaa program has provided $201.8 million for 2,194 abatement projects. Although all schools with low per-capita wealth and extensive4abatement needs can apply for grants and loans, fewer than one in six applications were funded between 1985 and 1988.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the program, has been criticized for its handling of the effort. A report last year from the agency's office of the inspector general concluded that the agency had poorly managed the program, resulting in a loss of funding for the agency and the program's intended beneficiaries.

And an internal audit by the agency three years ago found that one-ninth of the money distributed in 1985 and 1986 went to projects rated less than critical. (See Education Week, Oct. 11, 1989.)

Although the epa has repeatedly argued that asbestos abatement is a state and local concern, and has never asked for money for the program, the Congress has approved at least $40 million annually for such efforts.

The Senate bill to reauthorize the program would raise the funding ceiling for ashaa from $125 million to $250 million. It also would extend eligibility for grants and loans to schools that have to spend additional money to meet the special needs of disadvantaged students.

"While we do not oppose reauthorization at this time," Linda J. Fisher, the epa's assistant administrator for pesticides and toxic substances, said in a prepared statement, "we are concerned that this may not be the best use of scarce resources for a problem which is essentially a state and local responsibility."

Most of the hearing, however, focused on the effectiveness of the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986, or ahera, which required schools to inspect for asbestos--a substance widely used in buildings through the early 1970's--and submit management plans to state authorities by July 1989.

Most of the testimony centered around the Science article, which suggested that the 1986 law caused a panic that prompted many schools to perform unnecessary and costly asbestos-abatement projects. Such projects, the authors warned, can disturb the fibers and may cause more harm than leaving undamaged asbestos in place.

Siding against the article, and its conclusion that the type of fiber found in most school products is not dangerous, was Richard Lemen, the assistant director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

"At this time, there is no compelling evidence to justify different health policy for different asbestos fiber types," he said.

But Henry Lee, the executive director of the Energy and Environmental Policy Center at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, said "there are far more environmental hazards that are far more serious" than asbestos.

Ms. Fisher of the epa, while defending the asbestos law, said she, too, felt that "schools are too quick to jump to the removal option."

This view was challenged by Toni Siskin, a member of the Broward County, Fla., school board.

"I don't believe that [schools] are running quickly to total removal," she said. "In my experience, parents are pretty reasonable when it comes to this."

In her testimony, Ms. Fisher also outlined how her agency would evaluate the effectiveness of the ahera program. The epa will reinspect between 200 and 400 schools to check the accuracy of their inspections and the quality of their management plans, she said.

It will also conduct site visits to determine if maintenance and custodial personnel have been properly trained; to see if schools are following their managmeent plans; and to check whether schools met asbestos-notification requirements. Preliminary results of these evaluations should be ready in the next 6 to 12 months, she said.

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