One out of every five commercial buildings in the U.S. contains friable (easily broken) asbestos fibers, the type that poses the greatest cancer risk to humans, says an EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) report released two weeks ago.
The study said that of 3.6 million commercial buildings in the U.S., 733,000 contain asbestos that could break up into inhalable fibers; of these 733,000 buildings, 500,000 or 68% contain asbestos that is already damaged, most of it "significantly damaged," and are therefore likely to contain airborne asbestos.
The study looked at a statistical sample of 231 buildings and found asbestos most common in large residential apartment buildings; 60% of the apartment buildings tested contain asbestos.
Asbestos is a grey, powdery-fibrous material used for fire-proofing. The fibers are so tiny they can float in the air indefinitely, once they become airborne. Breathing asbestos fibers into the lung causes an increased risk of lung cancer. Smokers have a greatly increased risk from asbestos fibers.
The EPA study said the people at greatest risk in commercial buildings are service personnel and maintenance workers, especially those in boiler rooms (janitors, plumbers, heating technicians, etc.).
EPA plans to take no action on the study and will not recommend any new regulations or programs in the next three years, except to beef up a training program to increase the supply of asbestos control professionals. EPA argues that current resources (money, staff) are barely adequate to deal with asbestos in schools. (EPA estimates that 35,000 U.S. schools contain potentially-hazardous asbestos.) EPA argues further that starting a program now to deal with asbestos in commercial buildings, when professional staff are not available to do the job right, would increase the hazard beyond its present level, making the problem worse instead of better.
The Service Employees International Union, representing 150,000 workers, calls EPA's response "unacceptable" and will initiate a lawsuit to require EPA to survey all commercial buildings. The union wants the agency to help maintenance workers identify hazardous work sites.
For further information, contact the EPA person in charge of the
asbestos control program for schools in your EPA region: Region
1: Alison Roberts in Boston: (617) 565-3275; Region 2: Arnold
Freiberger, in Edison, NJ: (201) 321-6671; Region 3: Pauline
Levin in Philadelphia: (215) 5979859; Region 4: Jim Littell in
Atlanta: (404) 347-3222; Region 5: Tony Restaino in Chicago:
(312) 886-6003; Region 6: John West in Dallas: (214) 655-7244;
Region 7: Wolfgang Brandner in Kansas City, KS: (913) 236-2838;
Region 8: Dave Combs in Denver: (303) 293-1744; Region 9: JoAnn
Semones in San Francisco: (415) 974-7290; Region 10: Walt Jasper
in Seattle: (206) 442-2870. For a copy of the latest report
contact the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Assistance Office
(TAO), TS-799, EPA, Washington, DC 20460; phone: (202) 554-1404.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: asbestos; cancer; epa; studies; findings; particulates; lung cancer; occupational safety and health; labor unions;