Once prized as a durable, fire-resistant insulator, asbestos is now considered the very model of an insidious health menace, a silent killer lurking in plaster, ceiling tiles, pipe coverings, and fire-proofing materials. But mounting evidence indicates both that the risks of low-level exposure to asbestos have been greatly exaggerated and that the conventional solution of removing the material actually poses a greater danger.
A study published in Science earlier this year criticizes the practice of removing asbestos from schools and government buildings. It concludes that low levels of chrysotile asbestos, the kind commonly used in the United States, do not represent a serious health hazard. Looking at air samples from more than 400 buildings, the researchers found no difference between the levels of airborne asbestos particles inside and outside the structures.
The federal Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act requires that public and private school buildings deemed to be unsafe undergo asbestos abatement—removal or encapsulization of the material. The Environmental Protection Agency, which enforces the act, defines a building as unsafe if a visual inspection finds easily crumpled asbestos-containing material that is or may be damaged. The EPA does not call for testing to determine the actual level of asbestos particles in the air.
"What we learned is that you will breathe the same amount indoors or outdoors," researcher Morton Corn, of Johns Hopkins University, told the Los Angeles Times. "There really isn't an occupant problem in schools and buildings. The best way to deal with asbestos is to live with it."
The study found that asbestos abatement does not substantially reduce exposure for occupants and in fact puts at risk workers hired to remove the material. "Clearly, the asbestos panic in the United States must be curtailed, especially because unwarranted, poorly controlled asbestos abatement results in unnecessary risks to young removal workers," the authors say.
The researchers estimate that nationwide asbestos abatement costs could reach $150 billion. "What is being done in renovating a lot of public buildings makes no sense from a medical, biological, or environmental standpoint," said J. Bernard Gee, of the Yale University School of Medicine. "In our judgment, it's a monumental waste of money."