Asbestos Removal: Our Most Costly Environmental Scam

Published April 1, 2007

This article is the tenth in a continuing series excerpted from the book Smoke or Steam: A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory and Food Safety Concerns, by Samuel Aldrich, excerpted and abridged by Jay Lehr.

Asbestos removal, not asbestos use, is the subject of this analysis. It has been a fiasco.

Asbestos has been widely used in many places around the world because of its fire resistance. In modern times asbestos has been used for insulation, for wrapping heating pipes, and in automobile tires. Those usages have saved tens of thousands of lives.

Following the Coconut Grove nightclub fire in Boston in 1942, which killed 490 persons, many states required asbestos to be used to help suppress fires in private and public buildings. The lifesaving characteristics of asbestos seem to have been lost in the recent rush to get rid of it.

About 1900 it was learned that after long-term exposure in asbestos mines, many workers developed lung cancer. In the early 1970s, medical evidence mounted that lung cancer and respiratory ailments were common among workers in trades where asbestos was processed, including ship construction workers in World War II. There were many human tragedies associated with exposure to asbestos.

Feds Overreacted

In 1986 Congress passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act requiring all public and private schools to inspect for asbestos and to inform parents if asbestos was found. If so, schools were required to file a plan for removal, under threat of a $5,000 fine per day for failing to meet the deadline.

The impact of the mandate is illustrated by the experience of Tartan High School in Oakdale, Minnesota. The school district found that liquid asbestos had been sprayed legally on beams, and the school district proceeded to remove it. The district then brought suit against the manufacturer of the product. After four weeks in court, a jury awarded $820,750 for clean-up, plus $2,462,250 in punitive damages.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also required that asbestos be removed from all buildings being demolished. Many businesses embarked on costly asbestos removal programs out of of lawsuits alleging negligence.

Asbestos Exposure Minimal

Because lives are priceless, the act of Congress seems reasonable. But was it? Consider the facts. About 95 percent of the asbestos in buildings is in the form of chrysotile, which according to world scientific experts on the subject does not increase the risk of asbestos-associated disease at current exposure rates in the workplace or public buildings.

In January 1990 Science magazine reported asbestos fiber concentrations in buildings are comparable to the levels in outdoor air. Furthermore, the level of airborne asbestos fibers in schools where the asbestos-containing materials were in good condition was actually lower than in outside air.

Even where the asbestos fibers were dry and easily crumbled, airborne concentrations were only slightly higher than in outside air.

When left alone, asbestos fibers stay in place and thus are harmless. If any action is needed, it should be to wrap or otherwise encapsulate the asbestos so none can escape into the air. But in the process of being removed, they are stirred up, and workers are exposed to far higher levels than normal exposure in the workplace or in schools.

Costs Have Been Great

The estimated cost for the unnecessary asbestos removal is between $200 and $400 for each family in the United States.

How did this fiasco develop? Congress caused it by rushing through a law without adequate scientific input. Moreover, EPA was given a mandate to develop regulations to carry out the intent of the act, and thus must bear responsibility for the costly and unwise programs it developed.

As the preponderance of evidence has shown in recent decades, there appears to be no evidence that asbestos in buildings has caused even a single case of cancer or any other asbestos-related disease. The asbestos removal fiasco can be blamed on hysteria generated by environmental activists and their political allies. Worse still, the fiasco has become a model for litigation run amok in a host of environmental arenas.

Adding asbestos-related bankruptcies to unnecessary asbestos removal, the financial burden to each U.S. family has reached $1,000 and continues to rise.

It is worth repeating that asbestos has saved thousands of lives and was required by law in many public buildings to reduce the fire hazard. Large and small cities have lost huge amounts in tax revenues because manufacturing plants were closed, jobs were lost, and bankruptcies declared.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute. Samuel Aldrich is an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois. His groundbreaking book for laymen, Smoke or Steam? A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory, and Food Safety Concerns, is available from The Heartland Institute for $12. The table of contents of the book, containing 211 topics, can be viewed at