Congressional Committee Told “billions of scarce educational dollars wasted” on Clean-up!
By Michael J. Bennett, Author of “The Asbestos Racket”
“The saddest element” in the “strange tale” of asbestos “is that schools have spent too many of their scarce education dollars chasing a phantom problem,” a school board spokeswoman told a Congressional committee considering a risk assessment bill Feb. 1.
“Every one of those dollars was taken away from the resources needed to create the World-class schools this country says it wants,” Barbara Wheeler, representing the 95,000 members of the National School Boards Association, told the House Commerce Committee. Her testimony, reflecting the considered opinion of the largest number of elected and appointed local officials in the country, vindicated EPA critics the agency successfully ignored until then – and could have profound political impact. The Commerce Committee is considering a risk assessment bill, which could prevent such debacles in the future. Ninety five percent of the asbestos removed, the chrysotile variety, “is as harmless as ordinary dust,” Wheeler, a member of the school board in Dupage County, IL told the committee. The same committee was responsible in 1986 for the passage of the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA).
“We were not given any of this information when we passed AHERA,” Rep. Billy Tauzin (D-LA.), a member of the committee at the time said and a conservative Democrat who is a strong supporter of the property rights movement. Rep. Henry Waxman (D.-CA) and Rep. Edward Markey (D.-MA), who were also members at the time and still advocate the no-safe-level of exposure to carcinogens, conspicuously ignored Mrs. Wheeler’s testimony. So did Rep. John Dingell (D.-MI), the longtime chairman of the committee under the Democrats, who along with Waxman and Markey criticized risk assessment as “a one size fits all approach” insufficiently protect the public’s health? Mrs. Wheeler, however, quoted Dingell as having said three years ago:
“It’s increasingly apparent that there’s something fundamentally wrong with much of the science underlying our environmental health regulations, as we’ve seen in recent episodes with asbestos…. where the risks have been dramatically overstated at immense cost to the public.”
Mrs. Wheeler also quoted former EPA Administrator William Reilly as coming “close” in 1990 “to admitting that his organization was responsible for a significant environmental error … admitt(ing) that much of EPA’s work on asbestos was, at best, riddled with errors and had proven unnecessarily expensive.”
That unnecessary expense is also being scrutinized by the subcommittee on appropriations for EPA, headed by Rep. Tom Delay (R-TX). A measure to eliminate all spending – “zero out” – expenditures for asbestos removal in all federal buildings unless airborne asbestos levels are higher than the standard set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is being contemplated. The measure is patterned on a Michigan law passed in June of 1993 sponsored by John Schwartz, who is a medical doctor as well as a state senator. If passed, it would be a model for the states and provide private building owners with a legal precedent supporting decisions to employ “pro-active asbestos management” programs for asbestos as recommended but never widely publicized by EPA in its 1991 “Green Book.”
Mrs. Wheeler’s testimony was such a searing indictment of EPA’s failure to assess asbestos real risks, its evasion of responsibility and cover up of its mistakes, that it should be widely circulated. Hers is a tale with a simple and unequivocal moral: “Never again.”
“The NSBA enthusiastically endorses accurate and understandable risk-assessment practices. This testimony will begin where schools were first introduced to environmental issues – with asbestos….
“The asbestos saga began in 1982 when EPA accepted the claims of the environmental movement’ that there can be no safe level of exposure to a carcinogen’ or in the case of asbestos -‘one fiber can kill.’ There was no accurate assessment of the risks. The agency accepted a scientifically discredited four-year-old study predicting asbestos was a low-level carcinogen, and would cause as many as 40,000 “excess deaths” per year. The study was based on the experience of World War II shipyard workers who worked with extremely high levels of asbestos, and those results were extrapolated down to low exposures to the public.
The EPA used this study despite evidence that the actual asbestos deaths were no more than 520 (a year) at the highest point and was falling sharply as they died of natural causes. EPA also ignored its own scientific review of the study. EPA’s own scientific panel denounced the study as “unconvincing,” “greatly overestimated,” “scientifically unappealing” and “absurd.”
“Unfortunately early researchers failed to distinguish between the two kinds of asbestos – one scientists now recognize as being as harmless as ordinary dust and the other potentially lethal. The harmless variety, known as chrysotile, or white asbestos, accounts 95% all of the asbestos used in the United States. (Ed’s Note: Chrysotile is mined in North America) No one has ever produced evidence that white asbestos can hurt, let alone kill. In fact, in 1988, scholars at a Harvard University symposium announced that a person has a 300% better chance of being killed by lightning than dying from asbestos exposure.
“These figures are not true of the dangerous asbestos, known as amphiboles. (Ed’s Note: mined only in South Africa and was imported during the war due to shortages of American asbestos). Unfortunately the federal laws governing asbestos removal treat harmless asbestos the same as (Ed’s Note: Chrysotile is mined in North America) (Ed’s Note: Chrysotile is mined in North America) dangerous (asbestos).
“The original plan, as stated by former EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus was to use this flawed scientific understanding ‘to get the mothers to form a vigilante mob to storm the school committee.’ Unfortunately, this strategy is alive and well (emphasis supplied), despite our more developed scientific understanding.
“The saddest element to this strange tale is that asbestos removal will cost this country’s schools S 10 billion; schools have spent too many of their scarce education dollars chasing a phantom problem. Every one of these dollars was taken from the scant resources needed to create the world-class schools this country says it wants. Every dollar is taken away from providing additional teachers, access to computers, and, in some school districts, funds to repair the roof and purchase enough textbooks.
“Possibly the most disturbing recent asbestos debacle was in New York City just a year and a half ago. In fall 1993, the schools of New York City remained closed even after the school year was to have begun. The school buildings were being reinspected for the presence of asbestos containing material.
“During the summer ‘parents had stormed the school board’ and forced the closure of the schools for asbestos work and the expenditure of $119 million. The parents’ effectiveness cannot be questioned. I only ask whether the course of action was a wise one.
“A well-regarded article from the Journal of Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology published last year, entitled Asbestos in New York City’s Public Schools – Public Policy: Is There a Scientific Basis?, ‘concluded that ‘the calculated risk to NYC school children, using the most pessimistic models, was less than six cancer deaths per million lifetimes, equivalent to smoking less than a dozen cigarettes in a lifetime.
“The NYC administration responded to pressure from parent groups concerned with perceived asbestos risks to their children by closing the schools. The hysteria occurred because much of EPA’s policy lacked a scientific basis for risk evaluation and assessment. The article went on to articulate that whatever danger existed came from the removal of asbestos, and the consequent release of asbestos fibers.
“Last year, Warwick, Rhode Island went through a similar crisis. The second largest school district in Rhode Island spent $3 million in 14 schools to clean up what many regarded as an infinitesimal risk. Mayor Lincoln D. Chafee and a number of experts characterize the entire episode as a vast overreaction to a virtually negligible health risk and a terrific waste of money. (Ed’s Note: Sen. John H. Chafee, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works is the father of Mayor Chaffee, is expected to oppose any risk assessment bill which comes over from the House) James Celenza, executive director of the Rhode Island Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, said he saw no rational reason for the hysteria in Warwick.
“He said the city should let its janitors clean up the schools, and use the $3 million for something really useful like early childhood intervention programs. Nevertheless, the hysteria and breakdown of trust between the schools, parents, and the community has led Superintendent Henry Tarlian to say he will soon announce a plan to remove every bit of asbestos from every school in the system. `Once it is removed, our schools will be free of asbestos and we will no longer have to worry.’
“The schools in New York City and Warwick are excellent examples of the results of legislation predicated on bad risk assessment that was never corrected. Unfortunately, EPA was unwilling to step forward in either situation to correct public fears and to tell the parents of New York City and Warwick school children what they (EPA) had written many times – the risk of cancer increases with asbestos removal.
“The formulation of public policy on the asbestos issue was ahead of the scientific evidence to establish an accurate risk assessment,” Mrs. Wheeler concluded, “the result was, billions of scarce educational dollars were wasted. Schools cannot afford to abate questionable environmental hazards, ‘abate them in an unnecessary way or abate them down to a level that is beyond a reasonable risk.”
One of the other witnesses, Dr. Ellen Silbergeld of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), started to make a comment about asbestos in schools during the hearing, but was distracted. Afterwards, she was asked what she wanted to say. “I just wanted to observe the states didn’t do a very good job either,” she said. She was apparently unaware EPA didn’t provide either the states or school boards with either scientific information about asbestos or clear policies for dealing with the material. The fact that EPA’s policies are also made by lawyers rather than scientists, as acknowledged by the agency’s own report, Safeguarding the Future, also contributed to the debacle, she was told. So, too, was the fact that environmental groups such as EDF are also run by lawyers, with scientists only contributing backup support for predetermined positions. “That’s a recipe for a racket,” she was told. She didn’t respond. §
Michael J. Bennett is the author of The Asbestos Racket: An Environmental Parable based on articles published in The Detroit News in 1985 and nominated fore Pulitzer Prize