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Asbestos Inspections Not Up to Par at Many Schools, E.P.A. Says

By Ellen Flax — September 04, 1991 7 min read

each school district. Telephone interviews were also conducted with teachers, parents, and the original AHERA inspector.

The report, released amid growing concerns over the efficacy of the school asbestos program and a year before the deadline for schools to conduct re-inspections, also found that many schools have management plans that are difficult to use and that most school custodians do not receive the training they need to protect themselves.

On the positive side, the report found that 90 percent of all asbestos containing material in schools was properly identified. It also found that only 1 in 10 “response actions” outlined in the mandatory management plans involved asbestos removal,

The E.P.A., which was charged with overseeing the implementation of the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of/986, said it was generally pleased with the report’s findings.

“From our perspective, the schools are off to a good start,” said Linda Fisher, the agency’s assistant administrator for pesticides and toxic substances. “We think schools have got a lot out of the inspections they have already done.”

Under AHERA, schools were required to inspect for asbestos and submit management plans to state authorities by October 2988, unless they requested a deferral until May 1989. The agency estimates that more than 97 percent of schools have complied with these requirements.

All asbestos work, including inspections and abatement activities, was to be performed by workers who passed classes that were certified by the E.P.A.

Although the law did not require schools to remove asbestos, it required officials to take appropriate actions to ensure that damaged asbestos was properly contained and that undamaged asbestos was maintained and monitored.

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

The report, which was released in late July, is the second government report this year to offer evidence that the consultants schools hired to perform asbestos work lacked the training and experience to do a proper job. In June, a General Accounting Office study found that the E.P.A.'s standards for such workers are too lenient, and that many school officials believe that their management plans are “only generally accurate.” (See Education Week, June 19, 1991 .)

‘A $1.2-Million Happy Face’

The new E.P.A. report comes on the heels of a statement adopted by the American Medical Association asserting that the risks posed by asbestos have been overstated. The statement, published in the Aug. 7 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, also gives tacit approval to the E.P.A.'s policy of encouraging schools to manage asbestos “in place.”

Since asbestos will never be entirely eliminated from the environment, the statement reads, “developing improved procedures for managing its proper use, containment, and disposal offer the only realistic prospects for the prevention of asbestos-related injury and disease.”

In contrast, a report released in the weekly journal Science last year argued that the type of asbestos contained in most American buildings poses no hazard at all to occupants. It said the E.P.A. had created an “asbestos panic” that has caused many schools to conduct costly, unnecessary, and potentially harmful removal projects. (See Education Week, Jan. 31, 1990.)

In its new report, the E.P.A. attempted to refute this charge. Ms. Fisher, noting that AHERA management plans called for removal only 10 percent of the time, said this figure “was lower than we [would have] thought, given the hue and cry we heard from schools.”

“There really did not appear to be lots of overreaction,” said Ms. Fisher, adding that the report found that parents rarely reacted to the news that there was asbestos in their child’s school.

Ms. Fisher’s assessment, however, was disputed by some in the field.

John Welch, executive director of the Safe Buildings Alliance, which represents former asbestos manufacturers, said many of the $1 .2-million report’s findings with respect to removal are inaccurate.

“I think the report puts a $1.2-million happy face on a $6.2-billion problem,” he said. Since the report does not account for removal activity before AHERA, he said, it “seriously underestimates” the true incidence of asbestos-removal projects.

Mr. Welch, whose group opposes attempts now under way in the Congress and by labor groups to extend AHERA-like provisions to other public and commercial buildings, said “if there are problems with AHERA, it’s a consultant problem... because it accorded consultants too much discretion.”

Major Findings

The report, which was based on inspections and interviews at a nationally representative sample of 198 schools and 207 school buildings in 30 communities, found widespread problems with the initial inspections and management plans.

Specially trained inspectors reinspected the buildings and compared their findings with those outlined in the schools’ management plans. The evaluators also conducted interviews with each school principal and the AHERA “designated person” in each school district. Telephone interviews were also conducted with teachers, parents, and the original AHERA inspector.

According to the report, 82 percent of the schools had at least one asbestos-containing material that went unidentified in the initial inspection. Thirty-eight percent of the initial inspections were deemed “deficient” or contained “serious deficiencies” because they did not accurately quantify, assess, or locate the material. Only 16 percent of the inspections, the report found, were thorough.

The inadequate inspections, the study found, were often the fodder for management plans that were difficult to follow. The report said that, while 80 percent of the plans were generally complete, 80 percent of the recommended “response actions’’ were generic and failed to specify the locations where the actions should be performed. More than one-fifth of the management plans would have necessitated extra training to be properly carried out, even for those employees with an advanced degree.

The study found that most schools did not provide their maintenance workers with the asbestos training that is required by law. Only 22 percent of schools, the report said, provided 16 or more hours of training for their employees who may disturb asbestos as part of their job.

Ms. Fisher and other agency officials said the E.P.A. was publicizing the common pitfalls contained in the first round of inspections before schools undertake their mandatory re-inspections, which must be completed by July 9, 1992.

She said the agency will finish development of a model training program for maintenance workers this fall, and will issue a more detailed set of guidelines for re-inspections this winter. The E.P.A. is also revising the training standards for asbestos consultants, she said.

Too Many ‘Three-Day Wonders’

Such standards for asbestos consultants are long overdue, said William D’Angelo, president of Kaselaan and D’Angelo, a large national environmental-consulting firm that conducted the re-inspections for the new E.P.A. report.

“There was an army of ‘three-day wonders’ who inspected schools,” he said, referring to the E.P.A. requirement that potential inspectors attend agency-accredited, three-day classes. “Now we are seeing the results.” “To do it right, you need to get

someone who knows what they are doing,” he said. “To get someone who knows what they are doing, you have to pay for it.”

“Schools don’t have that luxury, so I’m pretty sure the problem will be perpetuated,” he added.

Mr. D’Angelo also said he disagreed with the agency’s assessment of the effectiveness of the program to date.

“‘Off to a good start’ is language that should have been used in the early 80’s, not in the early 90’s,” he said. “Maybe [Ms. Fisher] considers that a good start, but maybe I’ve been in the business too long.”

Educators, in contrast, noted that, while the AHERA program does need improvement, many schools have made important strides toward managing their asbestos problem.

“Compared to not having anything, virtually every school did something about asbestos,” said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association. “On the other hand, the law did not result in the wholesale removal of asbestos, as some of the critics have maintained.”

“I’m glad, from a political standpoint, that the E.P.A. is supportive of

AHERA,” he said. “They could have used this report to undermine the whole statute.”

David Byer, a lobbyist for the National School Boards Association, said schools did the best they could, given the tight timeline required by the law.

“It’s hard to do a 100 percent job if the time was not provided to do it in a quality way,” he said. “That 38 percent [of the inspections] have some deficiencies does not imply that bad a picture.”

“Districts are going on faith that the inspectors know what they are looking for,” he said. “It isn’t that districts are going to shirk their responsibilities.”

Orrin Baird, a lawyer for the Service Employees International Union, which represents many school custodians and maintenance workers, said his group was willing to work with the agency to .improve training for school employees.

“A lot of the criticism of the program was not well-founded,” he said. “Over all, it’s a feasible program, not just for school buildings, but for other public and commercial buildings.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 1991 edition of Education Week as Asbestos Inspections Not Up to Par at Many Schools, E.P.A. Says

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