The Environmental Protection Agency opposes an across-the-board requirement for controlling asbestos in the schools because “each building has its own characteristics,” the director of the agency’s asbestos-action program told a House subcommittee last week.
“It’s very difficult to prescribe a national standard that would be safe I for people in all buildings,” Susan F. I Vogt said under sharp questioning by the subcommittee chairman, Representative James J. Florio, Democrat of New Jersey.
“We fear it might be counterproductive by encouraging asbestos to be ripped out unnecessarily,” possibly creating a greater hazard than before, she explained.
Inhaling asbestos fibers is a proven cause of cancer in humans. According to the E.P.A., “friable,” or easily dispersed, asbestos contaminates 31,000 public- and private-school buildings, threatening the health of an estimated 15 million students and 1.4 million school employees.
Current rules require districts to inspect schools for asbestos, but they mandate no corrective action. While many school boards have acted to remove or otherwise control the hazard, an estimated 75 percent of contractors’ efforts are ineffectual or dangerous, according to an internal E.P.A. assessment.
Mr. Florio, who recently introduced a bill that would force the agency to issue a comprehensive standard, expressed frustration with Ms. Vogt’s reasoning. “School boards really don’t know what to do,” he argued. “They are looking for guidance.”
“Why don’t you do the obvious thing-and not only the school boards are asking, but the businesses and insurers-why don’t you spell out the standards on a national basis?” he asked.
This sentiment was echoed by a parade of witnesses that included school-employee union representatives, asbestos contractors, building owners, and a parent whose daughter was exposed to asbestos in an elementary school.
Mr. Florio’s bill, H R 4311, calls for regulations governing the inspection, removal, and disposal of asbestos in school buildings. It would also create a national program to accredit asbestos-removal contractors. A companion measure, S 2083, has been introduced by Senator Robert T. Stafford, Republican of Vermont.
“The agency would like nothing better than to have a national standard,” Ms. Vogt responded, because it would make E.P.A.'s job “simpler.” But the technical complexities of controlling asbestos make such a regulation ill-advised, she said.
In an interview, William K. Borwegen, health and safety coordinator for the Service Employees International Union, agreed that each asbestos hazard calls for an individual judgment on what action is warranted. But the solution, he said, is to require school districts to hire qualified asbestos consultants to recommend a course of action.
Moreover, abatement procedures must be standardized to be safe, he added.
“There’s nothing unique about how asbestos causes cancer, or about the need to abate the hazard,” Mr. Borwegen argued.
“There’s a haphazard method of abatement now going on,” he said. “E.P.A.'s guidelines are a joke. There’s no economic incentive to follow them” because they are costly as well as nonbinding.
The S.E.I.U. filed suit against the E.P.A. in 1984 to force it to issue a comprehensive standard for asbestos in the schools, but the case has yet to be tried.
Lately, the union and the agency have been meeting “about every other week,” in an attempt to settle the case, Mr. Borwegen said. “There is a feeling that we’re making progress”, but it’s hard to ascertain what the final outcome will be.”
Assistance Efforts Increased
At the hearing, Ms. Vogt stressed the E.P.A.'S increasing efforts to provide technical assistance and training for school administrators and asbestos-abatement contractors and workers.
She also announced stricter criteria for awarding grants to school districts for asbestos work. These include the use of state-certified or E.p.A.-trained contractors.
Twelve states have enacted certification rules for asbestos-removal firms and 10 others are considering such action, she said.
But Mr. Florio appeared to remain dissatisfied, noting that the E.P.A. has been promising to issue a certification standard since 1979. “Reputable contractors should be doing the work,” he said, instead of “rip and skip pirates.”
“Sometimes there is a correlation between the lowest bidder"—which school officials are usually bound to hire—"and the most incompetent contractor,” the Congressman added.
“Many schools may have taken some abatement action,” said John J. Sweeney, S.E.I.U. president. “But thousands have done so improperly and many have increased risk. Thus, many schools that believe they have solved their problem may, in fact, have made matters worse.”
Mr. Sweeney also warned that the E.P.A. has underestimated the extent of the asbestos hazard because “thousands of schools missed boiler-room asbestos” in their initial inspections.
Mr. Florio said his legislative proposal would save districts money in the long run by requiring that asbestos be removed properly the first time. It may even reduce costs in the short run, he added, by easing the liability-insurance crisis for asbestos-removal contractors.
A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 1986 edition of Education Week