Schools Get Low Marks for Asbestos : Political Bickering, Bureaucracy Slow Cleanup Process

Times Staff Writer

All students and staff of public primary, elementary, junior high and senior high schools have the inalienable right to attend campuses which are safe, secure and peaceful.

--Article I, California


If report cards were handed out to California’s 1,028 school districts and private schools, grading them on asbestos abatement awareness and compliance with the 1986 Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, very few would score a a passing mark, according to a number of experts in the field.


What surfaces from an overview of the asbestos problem in schools is a hodgepodge of confusion, political bickering, an ingrained don’t-rock-the-boat attitude within the school system bureaucracy, charges that the Environmental Protection Agency has failed to establish clear rules for determining asbestos health risks, and complaints that federal deadlines are unrealistic.

Meanwhile, parents have begun to question the safety of the classroom environment and are not getting straightforward answers.

One concerned mother, whose child is a first-grader at Beverly Vista Elementary School, said: “I have always trusted the school system completely in matters of safety. Now, I don’t know what to believe.”

At Beverly Vista, one of five school sites in the Beverly Hills School District, four classrooms, including a kindergarten setting, were recently found to contain friable asbestos in a disintegrated form within the ceiling structure. The school is currently undergoing abatement in these critical areas.

The Asbestos Cleanup legislation of 1986, which arose from dissatisfaction with existing EPA efforts to regulate asbestos, mandated that the nation’s schools clean up hazardous asbestos on their premises and required the EPA to issue standards for school inspection, cleanup and disposal of the insulating material.

If friable asbestos-containing materials are found in schools, the Emergency Response Act requires not only inspections by EPA-accredited consultants but an asbestos management plan for ongoing control of the release of asbestos fibers, even when the materials do not pose an immediate hazard.

The management plan also activates immediate repair of damage and building cleanup, where needed, and requires all school maintenance and custodial staff to be trained through EPA-approved courses.

One of the inconsistencies of EPA guidelines, said one asbestos consultant, is that the agency has left it up to the individual states to implement the format and design Contractor Accreditation Plans, resulting in a wide range of quality control standards. Under previous regulations issued in 1982, schools were required to inspect for asbestos and to notify parents and employees of the results. But EPA rulings at that time did not explicitly mandate schools to take remedial action.

“Even today, the magnitude of the asbestos cleanup problem in schools is clearly not understood by vast numbers of untrained people assigned by school administrators to see that the new requirements are carried out,” said Gordon Goldman, president of Asbestos Environmental Controls, a Torrance-based asbestos inspection and consulting firm, whose clients currently include school districts in Illinois, Louisiana and California, including 25 school districts within Los Angeles County.”

Parents Short-Changed

“Furthermore, I do not believe the responsibility for the asbestos problem in schools should be assigned to business or insurance risk managers within the school districts who have little or no knowledge of the dangerous consequences in the poor handling of hazardous substances,” added Goldman, who has a doctorate degree in organic chemistry.

“I think parents have been short-changed. One simply cannot treat a life-threatening issue, in the same routine fashion as ordering 100 bags of potatoes for the school cafeteria.

“It takes time and special skills to do a good job,” said Goldman, who believes the federal deadlines are too stringent and that many of the districts have pushed through shabby inspections. “There are simply not enough people to do the job. We need at least twice as many qualified inspectors as we have now.”

Goldman, whose crew targeted the critical areas at Beverly Vista in a preliminary inspection, said he also found evidence of potentially dangerous asbestos conditions at Beverly Hills High School.

Acted Immediately

Mike Farrow, director of maintenance for the Beverly Hills School District, said the district sites had undergone previous asbestos inspections and that corrective work had been done in the past. “I believe we have a handle on this problem now,” he added. “At Beverly Vista, we acted immediately to remedy the situation after the problem was pointed out to us. We certainly don’t want our students exposed to a dangerous environment.”

Studies have shown that the level of airborne fibers inside asbestos-containing buildings varies little from the level outside the buildings (in California it is fairly well impregnated with airborne fibers from the weathering of native serpentine rock and dust from other building materials). The increased risk of asbestos-related health hazards in schools, arises when school officials fail to monitor these conditions, through regular inspections and implementation of corrective measures, before a critical condition develops, said Peter MacDowell, a Los Angeles-based asbestos abatement expert.

“Friable asbestos in a crumbled form can literally fall through cracks. In each instance where friable asbestos surfaces are disturbed, by varying degrees of contact to its surfaces, by water damage from a leaky roof or pipe or dislodgement caused by earth tremors, friability will occur, and minute airborne particles will make their way into the air stream,” MacDowell said.

How often are plants or decorations hung unwittingly from a ceiling in a classroom, containing asbestos? How often are acoustic tiles shoved aside by untrained custodians to access ceilings where beams have been sprayed for fireproofing and insulation with friable asbestos substances? MacDowell said “the same can happen when an untrained repairman replaces a phone or electric line or, even worse, breaks into an asbestos treated area to connect a computer terminal.”

Personally Liable

He urged that parent-teacher organizations should take a pro-active stance. “Every school should form a committee of interested parents to demand full disclosure of progress of prudent response to AHERA requirements. What people are not aware of is that the local asbestos designee for a school district is in fact personally liable for his actions. That, in itself, I’m sure, has not been conveyed to those responsible. I wonder how many of them ever really read the act.”

The federal government’s asbestos emergency response legislation, sponsored by Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.) and signed by President Reagan on Oct. 22, 1986, bears down on the problem with new, strict standards for asbestos contractor certification and training, inspections, lab accreditation and procedures for asbestos management and abatement programs in the nation’s schools.

Compliance, however, has not been that simple and school officials fear that when management plans are completed and a full schedule of abatement work is determined, they will not be able to meet the high costs of such management.

Because of the complexity and confusion about the asbestos problem, of what is dangerous and what is not, both from a technical and health standpoint, the tendency in some sectors has been to minimize the danger of this environmental problem, leading some lawmakers to wonder whether the issue has become too emotional.

Second Thoughts

Parents who voted for Proposition 79 (approved on the Nov. 8 ballot) and were led to believe that the School Facilities Bond Act (Proposition 79) specifically set aside “up to $100 million to be used for the identification, assessment and abatement of hazardous asbestos,” should be aware of second thoughts by some members of the California Legislature.

A lobbyist for the California School Boards Assn. said that on Nov. 30, the State Allocation Board discussed limiting Proposition 79 funds for asbestos work in schools in favor of using more funds for school construction.

Such redrafting of guidelines by the board does not require voter approval, he emphasized, adding that the only schools currently qualifying for allocation of funds from Proposition 79 are those where the asbestos problem is so critical that the school is shut down. Under that scenario, only the Hiram-Johnson School in the Sacramento Unified School District has qualified, thus far.

To keep the issue in perspective, asbestos experts offer reassurance that all asbestos in buildings is not dangerous, that some 3,000 asbestos products were used in construction prior to 1973 for structural fireproofing, acoustical ceilings, pipe and boiler insulation or furnace systems but that these differences have not been brought to the attention of the Resource and Recovery Act, the Congress or the public.

Risks ‘Overstated’

“It is important to clarify these differences,” said Ed Kennedy, a K & D asbestos consultant, formerly involved with inspections within the Beverly Hills School District and currently overseeing some of the work being carried out in various school districts. “The word asbestos, as used in the law, is too generic a term for a large group of minerals of different chemical compositions and morphology which are not equally carcinogenic or health hazardous.”

Dr. Robert N. Sawyer, a Connecticut-based consultant in industrial medicine, believes the EPA has overstated the risks in schools and neglected to clarify and communicate the variables connected with friable asbestos exposure.

“Any asbestos-containing material does not necessarily represent a threat to human safety. I would rather see more emphasis and regulation by the EPA on cigarette smoking, which poses a much higher health risk to young lungs. Those most at risk from asbestos in schools are the maintenance and custodial workers working in areas where friable asbestos is found,” Sawyer said, “although, in certain instances, where children are directly exposed to friable asbestos, a definite health hazard could exist and that should be corrected.”

In EPA terms, Kennedy stated, friable asbestos means asbestos that, when dry, can be crumbled with light to harder hand pressure and can be so fragile that all one has to do to dislodge is to blow on it.

Complex Relationship

“But we must also remember that some asbestos sprayed on for insulation and fireproofing carries a cementitious binder or mineral fiber binder that makes it more resistant to crumbling.”

The EPA “Purple Book,” issued in June, 1985, states that “there is no direct information on health risks from exposure to asbestos in buildings with asbestos-containing materials, so the risks are estimated by extrapolation from studies of asbestos industry workers.”

A once-common building material, asbestos is linked to asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma (also known as black lung disease) in individuals with a history of prolonged or excessive exposure to high levels of asbestos fibers.

But the EPA report also notes that “asbestos exposure in children is of special concern, since they (the children) have a greater remaining life span than adults and their lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma is greater. Avoiding unnecessary exposure to asbestos is prudent.”

MacDowell believes “if we must overreact in some undefined health and safety issues where children are concerned, then let us all be on the side of conservatism, until such time as more accurate data and statistics become available.

“As adults we have a choice as to our work conditions but the children who are sent off to school every morning to an asbestos-laden site, don’t have that choice.”