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E.P.A. Guide Warns Schools To Avoid The Unnecessary Removal of Asbestos

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By Ellen Flax

Washington--In its strongest statement to date warning against unnecessary asbestos-removal projects, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is recommending that schools make in-placement asbestos management the "cornerstone" of their asbestos-control programs.

"Removal is often not a building owner's best course of action to reduce asbestos exposure," the agency says in a new guide on in-place asbestos management that will be sent to all schools next month. "Furthermore, in some cases, an [operations and maintenance] program is more appropriate than other asbestos-control strategies, including removal."

The new guide, which has been in the works for two years, is the most comprehensive asbestos document published by the agency since 1985.

Its distribution comes at a time when some in the scientific community have questioned whether the agency and the Congress have created an "asbestos panic" that has caused many schools to conduct unnecessary, costly, and potentially harmful removal projects. (See Education Week, Jan. 31, 1990.)

Under the 1986 federal asbestos law, schools were required to have their facilities inspected and to develop by July 1989 management plans for controlling asbestos. Although the law did not require schools to remove asbestos, it did require officials to take appropriate actions to ensure that damaged asbestos was properly contained and that undamaged asbestos was maintained and monitored.

The epa has estimated that it will cost schools more than $3 billion to comply with the law; others have estimated that it will cost schools at least twice that amount.

Proper Maintenance Stressed

"Many millions of dollars have been wasted on unnecessary asbestos-removal operations," William K. Reilly, the epa's administrator, acknowledged in a statement. "This guide will help people understand that in-place asbestos management can protect public health, reduce costs, and guard against liability."

In the guide, which is aimed mostly at building owners, the agency stresses the importance of training all personnel who may deal with asbestos.

Proper operations and maintenance programs, the agency says, would include:

  • Notifying building workers and occupants about the location of any asbestos;
  • Regular surveillances to note any changes in the condition of asbestos-containing materials;
  • Work practices that avoid or minimize the release of asbestos fibers; and
  • Thorough worker-protection and recordkeeping procedures.

"This new guide is important because in-place management should be the cornerstone of your school asbestos-control program, as documented in your management plans under the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act," says a letter that will be sent along with the document to school officials.

"Since mandatory ahera reinspections are approaching, you should conduct the reinspections and revise, as appropriate, your ahera management plans with this guidance in mind."

The "epa hopes," the letter concludes, "that this effort will help the unwarranted fears some people seem to have about the mere presence of asbestos in buildings and discourage decisions to arbitrarily remove all asbestos-containing material regardless of its content."

Reaction Mixed

Educators were divided last week as to whether the document marked a departure for the agency.

Joel Packer, a legislative specialist for the National Education Association, said there is "nothing substantially new in this guide."

"This guide in and of itself should not convince schools to do anything radically different," he added.

But Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said the guide is significant because it clearly states that very low levels of asbestos are unlikely to cause harm to building occupants.

"We're glad that [the epa] finally got to the point of trying to calm the hysteria," he said. "It's just about five years too late."

"We spent billions of dollars, and the epa is partially to blame," he added.

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