Washington--The Environmental Protection Agency, by failing to place a high priority on the problem of asbestos in schools, is to blame for the low level of public awareness of the hazards of the substance and the consequent failure of many local school officials to act promptly upon identifying problems, an agency management team has concluded.
The group’s report recommends that top epa officials deliver a strong public message on the importance of inspecting for and controlling asbestos in the schools.
But the first step, the report contends, should be to establish a strategy to provide school officials with information on health risks, control methods, costs and benefits, and notification standards.
The report, a copy of which was made available to Education Week, argues that the problems result from epa’s “reluctance in the past to give the [asbestos-in-the-schools] program a high priority.”
“epa’s message that asbestos exposure is hazardous and that the asbestos in the schools rule must be taken seriously has not been clearly transmitted to most of the [local education agency] officials nor to most of the general public,” the report states. “In the majority of noncompliance cases, school officials have been uncertain as to what is required of them under the rule and lacking in appreciation for the potential hazards of exposure.”
The report recommends also that the agency should “accurately assess the need for funding of abatement activities.”
“While our study found no clear need for funding at this time, this could be due in part to the lack of public understanding of the hazard,” the authors write. “Consideration should first be given to defining when an imminent hazard exists in a school so that lea’s which find themselves in such a situation and which are also lacking in funds are provided a mechanism with which to take immediate action.”
Congressional observers suggested last week that the intent of the report was to impress upon epa Administrator William Ruckleshaus and his deputies the need for a strong agency strategy aimed at controlling asbestos in the schools.
In the schools, the report states, the low levels of awareness have been translated into a failure to comply with an epa rule that required them to inspect for friable, or crumbling, asbestos, and notify parents and staff members by June 28, 1983, if friable asbestos was found.
The rule contains no requirement for removing the asbestos but is based on the
premise that parents and staff members, once notified, will exert strong pressure on school officials to control the problem.
According to a preliminary survey conducted by the report’s authors, “the rule has not been effective in bringing about inspection of schools and notification of parents.” The survey, which included 275 local education agencies, supports the findings of earlier investigations, which reported that about two-thirds of the districts surveyed were not complying with some part of the rule. The authors warn that the results of the survey may not be nationally representative, since in some cases districts were chosen because they were likely to be out of compliance.
The authors also conclude that “little abatement activity has been undertaken by lea’s [local education agencies] since the asbestos in the schools rule was promulgated. Our study of 275 lea inspections demonstrated that only a few of the schools reported to contain asbestos had plans to take abatement action and the majority of the schools found to be in need of abatement had not initiated abatement plans.”
The report’s authors link this finding with a number of factors. Although the epa office of pesticides and toxic substances has issued “good technical guidance on reducing asbestos exposure in the schools,” local, state, and regional officials used the guidance materials “inconsistently.”
One regional epa official, Dwight Brown of the agency’s Atlanta office, recently charged that a newly developed guidance document has serious inadequacies. epa officials here, however, have responded that the charge is based on a difference of opinion as to the agency’s proper role.
The inconsistent use is also due in part to the “low priority previously given to the asbestos-in-the-schools program.”
In addition, the report states, “major problems” stem from a part of the epa inspection rule that exempts schools that certify that they either found no asbestos or adequately controlled the problem before the June 28 deadline. The rule contains no provision for re-inspecting those schools.
Sixty-five of the 275 districts surveyed had claimed such exemptions for some schools, most because their inspections had revealed no asbestos or because they had encapsulated the asbestos they found.
But the epa regards encapsulation as a temporary measure; asbestos that is sealed off may nevertheless become friable, according to the agency. Similarly, asbestos that was not crumbling at the time of the original inspection may become hazardous later. Because school officials are not required to re-inspect the buildings, parents and staff members may never learn about potentially hazardous situations.
The management group suggests that the epa consider amending its inspection rule to require reinspection of those schools exempted under the existing rule.
The report also links the schools’ failure to take action once they have identified potentially hazardous asbestos with the epa’s failure to establish a requirement for abatement or a guideline for when asbestos should be removed.
The agency did not set a standard because of its “inability to develop a valid exposure assessment index to estimate the potential for fiber release,” the report says. Whether it is possible to develop such a standard has been the topic of considerable debate, epa officials have said.
And although it once considered doing so, the agency chose not to require abatement “due to the belief that individual site inspections by lea personnel using epa guidance material would result in the most appropriate action being taken at each site.”
The report’s authors recommend several actions to rectify the situation. The first step should be to develop a “schools communication and control strategy.” The strategy should include, they suggest:
The agency’s clear assessment of the health risks of exposure to friable asbestos;
Standards for appropriate notification of parents and employees;
Abatement procedures to be adopted in cases where friable asbestos is found; and
Estimated costs and resulting benefits of various abatement options.
The report also calls for an increase in the number of inspectors for schools. The authors also recommend providing additional technical-assistance resources, noting, “We cannot expect the public to make highly technical decisions without the proper tools.”
In addition, the report suggests epa work more closely with the Education Department in monitoring abatement and inspection.
David Ryan, a press officer for the epa, said that the agency is considering a number of options, but added that “there’s nothing definite as far as any regulation goes.” He said that he did not know if the document had been sent to Mr. Ruckleshaus.
A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 1984 edition of Education Week as E.P.A. Cited for Failure To Stress Asbestos Hazard