Educators React Cautiously to New Asbestos Study
Educators are reacting cautiously to a new study that suggests that the health hazards posed by the type of asbestos most common in school buildings have been greatly overstated.
The report, which was published in the Jan. 19 issue of the journal Science, called into question the 1986 federal asbestos law, which required schools to spend millions of dollars on inspections and on asbestos-control and -removal projects.
It also said that many schools had performed unnecessary asbestos-abatement projects. Such projects can disturb the fibers and may cause more harm than leaving undamaged asbestos in place, the study said. (See Education Week, Jan. 24, 1990.)
Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was busy defending the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986, and rebutting the report's conclusion that inadequate scientific research and misguided attempts to regulate the problem have led to an "asbestos panic."
"The ahera regulations, in very few categories, required removal," said David Kling, the deputy director of environmental assistance in the agency's toxic-substances office. "The agency's program has been designed to keep low levels [of asbestos] low."
Others, however, said the study, completed by a five-member research team, have raised questions in the minds of many about the amount of money and effort spent on managing asbestos in schools.
Referring to another substance whose health effects allegedly have been exaggerated, although on the positive side, Bill Rukeyser, a spokesman for California's Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, joked last week: "Asbestos may turn out to be the oat bran of the public-buildings world."
Most educators interviewed about the study said the new findings would have little practical effect on how they handle and contain the asbestos on their school grounds.
"It probably has been overblown to a certain extent, but we have to follow what they have set down," said Cliff Mooney, maintenance supervisor for the Western Benewah School District in Idaho.
Football, Vaccines Riskier
Asbestos has been used in the manufacture of more than 300 common building products used in schools, and has been linked with lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. The epa estimates that about one-third of the nation's more than 100,000 schools contain friable, or damaged, asbestos.
The agency has estimated that it will cost schools more than $3 billion to comply with all aspects of the 1986 law, which required schools to inspect for asbestos and to follow the management plans they were to have filed with state officials by last July. Others estimate that it will cost schools at least twice that amount.
The new study comes as many schools are struggling to pay for asbestos-related work. Last summer, for example, the Wilmington Montessori School in Delaware chose to spend $10,000 it had set aside for teachers' raises on removing asbestos from a storage shed.
According to the study, the major flaw of the laws designed to control asbestos in schools is their requirement that two different types of asbestos fibers be treated identically.
Amphibole fibers, the authors claim, are more likely to be deadly than chrysotile fibers, which are commonly found in products used in schools and are thought to be less likely to penetrate the lung. According to the authors, chrysotile fibers have never been proven to be harmful to those only marginally exposed to them, such as teachers and students.
The research team, which was led by a medical-school professor from the University of Vermont and included researchers from four other institutions, also said that the risk of an asbestos-related death due to a school exposure is "magnitudes lower" than the risks posed by whooping-cough vaccines, participation in high-school football, and smoking.
Last year, the researchers published a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine that had many similar conclusions.
'Unbiased Scientific Research'?
Bernard Gee, a professor of internal medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine and one of the study's authors, reiterated last week that the "the asbestos panic is very real."
"People get frightened and they remove everything," he said.
Dr. Gee said there was nothing wrong with the federal requirement that schools be inspected for asbestos. But schools that are considering removing asbestos, he said, "should spend their money on other things."
"If it's flaking from the ceiling, take it out--but it probably won't cause you any harm," he said.
Dr. Gee, who said the study was not funded by the asbestos industry, maintained that his past work for former asbestos manufacturers did not influence his conclusions.
But some critics have suggested that the researchers may be biased. In a letter last November to the lawyers involved in the national class action against former asbestos manufacturers, Gwendolyn H. Gregory, deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association, wrote that several members of the research team took part in a symposium partially funded by the asbestos industry.
Most, if not all of the speakers at this forum, she wrote, "have acted as defense expert witnesses in asbestos-in-buildings litigation or as consultants to defendents on the issue. ... [I]t would an appropriate use of a portion of the class-action litigation fund to provide money for unbiased scientific research."
Katharine L. Herber, the nsba's legislative counsel, added last week, "On the basis of two studies or two reports that have come out recently, that in my mind are somewhat suspect, districts should not jump to change management plans to do less in response to asbestos."
'A Political Response'
Critics of the report assert that the scientific community does not support the view that chrysotile fibers are less harmful than amphiboles.
"There is no evidence that there is a substantial difference" in health risks between the two types of fibers, said William Nicholson, a professor of community medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
Dr. Nicholson said that while he does not support unneccessary asbestos-removal projects, the "alternative of doing nothing is equally wrong."
The argument over whether amphiboles are more harmful than chrysotiles is long-standing. During the mid-1980's, when the Congress debated prospective school-asbestos laws, the issue was also raised. In response to a 1984 letter from two senators, James O. Mason, then the Assistant U.S. Surgeon General, wrote that chrysotile "does lead to malignancy in man."
Observers said that it was unlikely that the current debate over the relative harmfulness of asbestos would lead to a major revision of the school-asbestos law.
They said, however, that the publicity could hinder efforts by some members of the Congress to extend an ahera-like law to public and commercial buildings.
School officials, meanwhile, said the report--and the debate it has spurred--only proves that the asbestos issue remains politically highly charged.
"It confirms the feelings that many people have about the asbestos program," said Margaret Scholl, maintenance director for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "The kind of legislation that was passed was a political response to an emotional problem, rather than a reasoned public-health response."