School Asbestos Threat Is Overstated, Study Says

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The asbestos fibers commonly found in most schools do not pose a health hazard to students and school workers, a new study concludes.

The study, which was published in the Jan. 19 issue of the journal Science, calls into question the 1986 federal law that required schools to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on inspections and asbestos-control and -removal projects.

The study, conducted by a University of Vermont researcher and four colleagues at other institutions, re4views other scientists' work on asbestos. They conclude that inadequate scientific research and misguided attempts to regulate the problem have led to an "asbestos panic."

Asbestos, which has been used in the manufacture of more than 300 common building products, has been linked with lung cancer and other deadly respiratory diseases. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that about one-third of the nation's more than 100,000 school buildings contain fri8able, or damaged, asbestos.

The agency has estimated that it will cost schools more than $3 billion to comply with the law. Others, including the National School Boards Association, have said that it will take at least twice that figure to bring schools into compliance.

The study's authors conclude that "published risk estimates show that the risks of asbestos-related deaths ... due to exposure in schools are magnitudes lower than commonplace risks in modern-day society."

They said that most studies have focused on asbestos workers, and not on those only marginally exposed to the fibers, such as students and school workers.

According to the study, laws designed to control asbestos in schools have not distinguished between two types of asbestos fibers: amphilibole, which are more likely to be deadly, and chrysotile, which are commonly found in products used in schools. Chrysotile fibers are thought to be less likely to penetrate the lung.

"Panic has been fueled by unsupported concepts such as the 'one-fiber theory,' which maintains that one fiber of inhaled asbestos will cause cancer," the report states.

The report echoes the opinions voiced by asbestos-industry groups over the years that unfounded concerns about asbestos have led to many unneccessary removal projects. Such projects can disturb the fibers, the study concludes, and can be harmful to both asbestos workers and building occupants.

In its regulations for the 1986 law, the epa acknowledged such risks and advised schools not to remove undamaged asbestos.--ef

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