E.P.A.'s Delay On Asbestos Rule Irks House Panel

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Washington--A congressional subcommittee last week lashed out at the Environmental Protection Agency (epa) for its delays in publishing a rule that would require an asbestos-inspection program in every public and private school in the country.

The federal environmental agency estimates that up to 40 percent of the nation's approximately 100,000 schools have not been inspected for the presence of asbestos, which is widely believed to cause lung cancer and other serious health problems.

In addition, the agency estimates that 3,000,000 students and 250,000 teachers and other school employees are regularly exposed to asbestos in some 8,600 public schools, and that about 1,800 nonpublic schools also contain asbestos.

Eliminating Asbestos Exposure

William J. Nicholson, a researcher on the health effects of asbestos with the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, testified last week before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation, and Tourism, which oversees the epa He said that although extensive exposure to dangerous asbestos fibers is uncommon in schools, there is a "need to eliminate the asbestos exposure to U.S. school children."

Larry C. Dorsey, who is in charge of the asbestos program at epa, said in an interview, "We do not want to promote the idea that this is a crisis, but there is reason for concern."

The proposed epa regulations would require every public and private school to inspect for "friable"--crumbling to the touch--asbestos and notify school employees and parents' groups if samples confirmed the presence of asbestos fibers. Schools would also be required to keep records of their findings. The cost of inspecting a school is estimated to be $230.

Another rule that would have required school districts to remove or cover exposed asbestos was abandoned last April, because, according to Mr. Dorsey, the agency does not have a reliable means of determining what amount of asbestos in the school environment constitutes a danger. He denied that the proposed rule was dropped for political reasons, as was suggested by several Congressmen at the oversight hearing last week.

Voluntary Program Failed

The asbestos--inspection regulations are being proposed, the epa says, because many school districts have failed to participate in a similar voluntary inspection program operated by the agency since 1979.

From the end of World War II to the early 1970's, materials containing asbestos were commonly used for fireproofing, insulation, and decoration in many school buildings across the country.

In 1973, the epa banned the use of sprayed-on fireproofing and insulation that contained more than 1 percent asbestos; in 1978, it extended the prohibition to cover spraying for any reason.

In the late 1970's, some states and cities--such as New Jersey and New York--conducted extensive programs to identify and remove asbestos. But the epa's figures suggest that a large percentage of the nation's school districts still have not determined how much asbestos is present in their schools.

At the oversight hearing, held last week before the subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, chairman James J. Florio, a New Jersey Democrat, accused epa officials of making "hollow promises" concerning the mandatory asbestos-inspection program.

The agency has had the proposed regulations on its "regulatory agenda" for over a year. But last October, the status of the regulations was changed to "undetermined."

epa officials at the hearing said that the proposed rule is currently being reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget and that it should be returned to the agency for final action by the administrator, Anne M. Gorsuch, within about 50 days. If Ms. Gorsuch endorses the regulations, they will be published in the Federal Register and will become law at that point.

Congressional committee members also castigated the epa officials at the hearing for the agency's failure to write regulations for an Education Department program that would have provided grants and loans to reimburse schools for removing asbestos. The program, authorized by Congress in 1980, was never funded, and it expired last June, according to Mr. Dorsey of the agency.

On another school-health matter, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recently released a study on the exposure of teachers and students to formaldehyde in school and college biology laboratories.

The federal consumer-protection agency concluded that the chemical, which is known to cause cancer in animals, "may pose a risk to human health."

The agency estimated that as many as 7.6 million school and college students are exposed to formaldehyde in biology classrooms each year. It recommended that alternative chemicals be used in schools.

Formaldehyde is commonly used in biology laboratories to preserve specimens used in dissections.

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