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Op-Ed: Asbestos and Lead — Two Deadly Threats that Must Both Be Eliminated

The idea that we can ignore one hazardous chemical because we are focused on eliminating another is dangerously short-sighted

Bonnie Anderson
Bonnie Anderson

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has named asbestos as a priority chemical to be evaluated for risk, yet at the same time, asbestos inspections at schools are being eliminated, supposedly due to budget constraints. The EPA is presented with a tough decision, reminiscent of the movie “Sophie’s Choice,” when a mother arrives at Auschwitz concentration camp with her two children and is faced with the decision between saving the life of either her son or her daughter. EPA is indicating it will either protect our kids and school staff from asbestos or lead paint, but not both.

Most people believe that asbestos is already banned in the United States. While progress has been made to limit certain uses of asbestos, it has never successfully been banned. In 1989, the EPA issued its Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule, which was challenged in the courts by industry and overturned in 1991.

Asbestos can be found in automotive brakes and clutches, and is still used in building materials, such as floor and ceiling tiles, cement asbestos pipe, corrugated paper pipe wrap, acoustical and decorative insulation, pipe and boiler insulation, and spray-applied fireproofing. EPA estimates that there are asbestos-containing materials in most of the nation’s primary, secondary, and charter schools —particularly in buildings constructed prior to 1980.

Asbestos in schools

Congress passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) in 1986 to protect children and school employees from exposure to asbestos in school buildings. AHERA requires local educational agencies to inspect their school buildings for asbestos-containing building material, prepare asbestos management plans, and perform asbestos response actions to prevent or reduce asbestos hazards.

In New Jersey, the EPA delegated the authority to conduct AHERA inspections to the Department of Health and funded this work through a grant to the state. Now, the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance is undertaking a review of the funds to ensure they are going to “priority” projects.

In an effort to phase in an increase in compliance monitoring and enforcement activities associated with exposure from hazards of lead-based paint, another important priority, the AHERA program will be defunded. This is because Congress approved less than $5 million dollars annually for the grant program, which covers lead, asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyl. The idea that we can simultaneously ignore one chemical because we are rightfully focused on eliminating another hazard is dangerously short-sighted and will leave school staff and students at risk to the hazards of asbestos.

On May 1, the EPA held a public hearing soliciting stakeholder comments on whether AHERA regulations can be reduced, streamlined, or eliminated. A report issued by Sen. Ed Markey in December 2015 titled, “Failing the Grade: Asbestos in America’s Schools,” documents a failure to manage asbestos in our schools. We should be looking at enforcing AHERA regulations, not streamlining or eliminating them. This shift in focus is happening at a time when the EPA has new authority under the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, a bill that received bipartisan support, to review and assess chemical risks. This update, the first to the Toxic Substance Control Act since it was enacted in 1976, includes a mandatory requirement for the EPA to evaluate existing chemicals with clear and enforceable deadlines. EPA has announced the first ten priority chemicals, which includes asbestos. The EPA is tasked with evaluating these chemicals to ensure there is not an unreasonable risk of injury to health, particularly for our vulnerable populations including workers, infants, children, pregnant women, and the elderly.

According to the World Health Organization, “there is no safe level of exposure” for asbestos. Asbestos is now banned in 55 nations, but not here in the United States.

Regulation not enough

The EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) both regulate asbestos, but this is not enough, especially in the absence of true oversight. Although certain uses of asbestos have been banned, it is still widely found in a number of products. Workers exposed to asbestos, such as those involved in building maintenance, renovations or demolition, or working with products that contain asbestos, may unknowingly carry the fibers home on their clothing and unwittingly expose their families to it. That’s what happened to Bonnie Anderson.

Bonnie was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 2001 after she was exposed to asbestos from laundering her husband’s clothes. In 2003, Anderson sued ExxonMobil for knowingly exposing her to asbestos. After eight years of litigation, she won a landmark decision that protects the rights of anyone who develops an asbestos-related disease caused by take-home asbestos exposure. Bonnie’s story reinforces the real dangers of exposure to asbestos, not just for workers, but also for families and entire communities.

The time is now for EPA to take action to protect workers, public health, and the environment and make the United States the 56th nation to ban asbestos. We also must continue to ensure adequate funding to enforce asbestos safeguards, including the AHERA, to ensure the safety and health of our children, workers’ and the public.

Bonnie Anderson is a 15-year survivor of peritoneal mesothelioma and is a patient advocate.

Debra Coyle McFadden is the assistant director of the New Jersey Work Environment Council, a coalition of 70 labor, community, and environmental organizations working for safe, secure jobs, and a healthy, sustainable environment.

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