It’s a confrontation between a labor union and the Reagan government, but this time the issue is not wages; it is asbestos danger in 30,000 American school a. The Service Employees International Union is suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ask the federal court to require the agency to establish standards for the performance of asbestos abatement activities and also to require corrective action where airborne asbestos particles exceed a set level.
The EPA has been sitting on this powder keg for several years on orders from the White House Budget Office. Under present law, the agency merely requires that schools inspect for asbestos. and report the result to parents. teachers and school employees. EPA’s own survey showed that than 10% of the local school agencies comply and even some of these were later found not to have inspected their boiler rooms — a common location for friable asbestos.
To add to this dismal compliance record, the EPA, again under pressure from upstairs at the Reagan House, informed Congress last year that it was not going to spend a single dollar that Congress had authorized to help hard pressed school districts conduct this technically difficult cancer prevention program.
Asbestos particles in the air are very-tiny and invisible. When they flake off ceilings, insulated pipes and ducts, cancer risks go up. Nobody denies that asbestos is a potent cancer causing substance that lodges in human lungs and can produce asbestosis or cancer years later. There are over fifteen million school children, one million teachers and school workers exposed daily. Yet Ronald Reagan, who has time to meet or call athletes again and again, has found no time to help keep America’s school children healthy.
Recently, John J. Sweeney, the head of the Service Employees Union (2020 K Street, N.W., Washington, D.C.) released internal EPA memoranda which contradict the agency’s official position that it is doing enough. Ore memo, written last spring by EPA official, John A. Moore, to his superior, EPA Assistant Administrator, Alvin Alm, said: “The results of the asbestos-in-the-schools survey confirm that there is extensive non-compliance with the requirements of the asbestos-in-the-schools rule (for inspections) on the part of local education agencies, and that there is continuing exposure to friable asbestos-containing materials in the nation’s schools.”
Moore expressed concern that “abatement projects are frequently performed poorly and that, as a consequence, there is an increased risk to workers and building occupants.” He then went on to recommend that EPA require reinspection of schools under more stringent standards and order the cleanup or containment of the exposed asbestos. In fact, he continued, the “lack of a requirement for abatement or a definition of when abatement is necessary is believed to have contributed to a reluctance on the part of local education agencies to undertake-abatement projects.”
Some schools have called in untrained contractors who have made the asbestos problem worse by vigorously tearing out the materials and producing more flaking of particles in the air. In one instance, the asbestos was flushed down the school toilet. Dealing with asbestos in buildings requires a delicate skill in order not to stir up billions of more particles into the air.
Dr. Robert Sawyer, who assisted EPA in this area, now believes that EPA’s leave-it-to-the-local-schools policy has made the situation worse. “Based on my observation,” he observed, “the EPA program, under the present condition will cause more adverse health effects, including malignancies, than it can ever prevent.”
President Reagan, pay some attention to this growing asbestos epidemic in the nation’s schools and the long-term damage to the health of so many children. For once, be a leader, instead of a cheerleader.