Since it was declared unsafe in the 1970s, asbestos has ranked with DDT, Agent Orange and the Dalkon Shield as a legal and public health scourge.
Tens of thousands of World War II-era workers have contracted debilitating and sometimes fatal illnesses from inhaling asbestos fibers when occupational safety precautions were virtually nonexistent.
More than 250,000 asbestos-related personal-injury lawsuits have been filed, about half resolved. An estimated 30 million tons of the insulation and fireproofing material still lurk in more than 700,000 U.S. buildings.
With public fear high, the flaky white mineral spawned what appeared to be a business with a long and profitable life span: removing asbestos from buildings, ships and machinery.
But some scientists and government officials now believe removal isn’t necessarily the best course. In their view, asbestos can be managed safely where it exists--though under a 1986 federal law it still must be removed during renovation or demolition.
“I don’t think people are as alarmed that asbestos is in the building, from a health and safety point of view, as they used to be,” said Olin Jennings, a management consultant in Columbia, N.J., who tracks the asbestos contracting business.
Nearly everyone agrees the minuscule airborne fibers of deteriorating asbestos products are hazardous. There also is agreement that undamaged asbestos out of public sight simply can be left alone.
The main question is how to minimize danger from crumbling asbestos: patching; sealing with paint, thermal insulation or fiberglass; or removal.
The shift toward monitoring in-place asbestos, combined with a commercial real estate market slump and completion of much federally mandated asbestos removal from public schools, has shrunk the abatement industry.
Jennings said the number of asbestos abatement contractors has fallen to 1,600 this year, down 27% from 1989. Industry revenue, which more than doubled in just two years to $3.9 billion in 1989 and 1990, fell to $3.2 billion last year.
Executives see the contraction as natural, as fly-by-night contractors leave the business and recessionary times take a toll. High profit margins of the 1980s have fallen. Commercial property owners are looking to cut costs.
“Vacancy is high and there’s less money to be spent,” said David Jungers, operations vice president at Marcor Environmental in Hunt Valley, Md., a big asbestos contractor. “Asbestos isn’t as high on the priority list as it once was.”
Still, all asbestos must be removed eventually. Jennings said asbestos management and removal has 25 years to go, or about $75 billion. In addition, the abatement industry is diversifying into other environmental management enterprises, such as removing lead-based paint.
But the issue is more complex than whether or not to remove asbestos. The mineral is part of many building materials--from acoustical ceiling tiles to pipe coverings to window putty to floor adhesives--and removal is costly.
Even in-place management requires training of maintenance workers, who face the greatest risk. The Service Employees International Union says its members are contracting respiratory ailments from asbestos exposure.
The Environmental Protection Agency helped spur the growth of the abatement industry with the 1986 requirement that school districts inspect for asbestos, remove it where dangerous and plan to safely manage what remains.
But in 1990, influenced by scientific studies questioning the dangers of undisturbed asbestos--and, critics charge, lobbying by former makers of asbestos-containing products--the EPA issued a report called the “Green Book” recommending that buildings seal off rather than remove most asbestos.
The decision has had impact. Banks, for instance, no longer automatically require that building owners remove existing asbestos before financing a sale, said John Ferber, a senior vice president at the Mortgage Bankers Assn.
Michigan’s legislature recently required in-place asbestos management in schools, going so far as to restrict its removal. The bill was supported by the building products manufacturers lobby, the Safe Buildings Alliance, and opposed by the American Lung Assn. and service workers union.
Union officials say while the public may not be endangered by in-place asbestos, maintenance workers are. They want a law requiring commercial and public buildings to inspect for asbestos, which manufacturers oppose.
“It is a total joke to believe that more than 10% of the buildings in this country have a good (asbestos management) program,” said Bill Borwegen, occupational health and safety director for the Service Employees International Union, which counts 175,000 janitors among its 1 million members.
A big complaint about asbestos management has been cost. Under the 1986 law, known as the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, schools can apply for a federal loan or grant for abatement. But funding--just $75 million last year--would be eliminated under President Clinton’s budget.
Costs far outstrip funding. Houston’s school district has spent $46 million on asbestos repair, removal and management since 1982.
Pointers on Asbestos Safety
John Dietrichs offers some recommendations for building owners, managers and businesses to deal with asbestos. Dietrichs is president of SafTech Consulting Inc. in Atlanta, and president-elect of the Environmental Information Assn., an Atlanta-based abatement industry group.
* Survey asbestos in the building to determine type of materials, location and action needed, whether it be removal, repair or maintenance.
* Devise a program for each site.
* Stress the importance of asbestos management to company officials.
* Determine equipment needs--specially filtered vacuums, respirators, glove bags--and written procedures for use.
* Require permits for all outside maintenance work that could disturb asbestos, such as a plumber replacing pipe.
* Determine a budget for in-place maintenance.
* Identify a local asbestos removal contractor for emergencies.
* Conduct in-house training for maintenance workers. Under federal law mandating asbestos maintenance and removal in schools, workers must take either a two-hour or a 16-hour course, depending on the job. Private companies have no such legal requirements.