removal, the biggest environmental cleanup project in U.S. history,
has cost an estimated $50 billion over the past 20 years. It has forced schools to lay
off teachers, caused owners to abandon buildings and added considerably
to the cost of remodeling many houses.
But one thing this colossal
investment hasn't done is produce a measurable improvement in
the public's health.
A USA TODAY investigation has
scientific evidence that asbestos in buildings creates a cancer
risk so low that it barely can be measured. A person who spends a career inside
a building rich with asbestos materials is more likely to die of a lightning bolt,
a bee sting or a toothpick
lodged in the throat than an asbestos-related cancer.
Despite the minimal risk, asbestos
continues to be removed from US. buildings at a cost of about
$3 billion a year, largely because the risks were overestimated
two decades ago and new scientific evidence has never changed
the public perception that asbestos in any form is deadly.
The U.S. situation is very
different from that in the developing world, where millions of
people in mining and manufacturing are exposed to enough asbestos
fibers and dust to cause incurable cancer and other diseases.
But in the USA, the amount
spent on asbestos removal "makes no sense from a public
health standpoint," says Michael Thune, chief epidemiologist
at the American Cancer Society "People have a hard time
understanding the magnitude of different risks. The risk of getting
cancer from asbestos in buildings is so small that eliminating
it wouldn't create a measurable blip in the (171,000) lung cancer
deaths that occur every year."
Even the fiercest critics of asbestos doubt the wisdom of removing
it from buildings.
"I'm sure you expect me to say, 'Take it out!'" says
David Egilman, a Brown University doctor who is a critic of the
asbestos industry and a frequent expert witness for workers suing
asbestos companies. "But that would be lunacy, and I'm not
a lunatic. There are far better ways to spend our money."
Adds Tim Flood, an epidemiologist at the Arizona Health Department:
"Asbestos abatement is pretty much a fiasco. It's hard to
think of a worse investment." Many more lives would be saved,
Flood says, if the money were spent on drug prevention, guardrails,
sunscreen, medical research "almost anything, really."
Indoor radon will cause 3,000 times as many deaths. Driving will
kill 20,000 times more people. Smoking will kill 50,000 times
For each life saved, asbestos removal costs $100 million to $500
Asbestos was one of the most common building materials in the
USA until the late 1970s, when large numbers of industrial workers
who used it developed cancer. A small fiber mined on six continents,
asbestos is prized for its ability to add strength and heat resistance
to a variety of materials. At its peak in 1973, the United States
used 795,000 metric tons of asbestos in roofs, floors, insulation
and hundreds of other products. (A metric ton is 2,200 pounds.)
The crusade to remove asbestos results from a failure to make
a distinction about when asbestos is dangerous. Asbestos dust
has caused tragic rates of cancer in miners and workers who made
and installed asbestos products with insufficient precautions.
The workers inhaled asbestos fibers, often for years or decades.
But once products with asbestos
are installed, so few fibers are released that the air inside
even the most asbestos-rich building is indistinguishable from
the air outdoors.
Why have Americans spent billions
attacking a minor health risk?
The experts say the fear created
by the health tragedy that befell asbestos workers - and the
multibillion-dollar lawsuits that followed - overwhelmed the
In the past 30 years, 171,500
workers in the United States have died of asbestos-related cancers,
the worst occupational health disaster of the century. An additional
119,000 U.S. deaths are expected before the epidemic winds down
in 2025. Unsafe use of asbestos in poorer nations will cause
30,000 cancer deaths per year for the foreseeable future.
In the 1970s and 1980s in court,
plaintiffs' lawyers proved companies hid the dangers of asbestos
long after they were known.
So far, 40,000 lawsuits have
been resolved; 200,000 are pending. The lawsuits forced Johns-Manville
Corp., a powerful building materials company, to seek bankruptcy
protection in 1982 and turn over 80% of its stock to workers
exposed to asbestos. The company has emerged from bankruptcy,
but the bankruptcy and cancer epidemic left the public with an
exaggerated fear of asbestos.
Linda Rosenstock, director
of the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety,
researched the dangers of asbestos early in her career and remains
extremely concerned about its unsafe use. But she says even people
who should know better lack a sense of proportion about asbestos
"I remember getting panicked
calls from other doctors who had been exposed to a burst of asbestos
dust while working on a boiler or whatever," she says. "I
would tell them, 'Calm down. It's no worse than smoking
a couple of cigarettes.' Those two cigarettes are certainly not
good for your health, but you have to keep it in perspective.
The dangers of asbestos - like smoking - depend on amount and
duration of exposure."
Workers who developed asbestos-related disease often spent years
in clouds of asbestos dust, spraying insulation inside ships
or weaving fireproof cloth at textile mills. They worked in places
that might have a typical asbestos dust level of 10 fibers per
cubic centimeter of air - enough to cause 20% of workers exposed
for 20 years to develop lung cancer or mesotheliorna, a fatal
cancer of the lung's lining. Their exposure was so high that
their spouses had elevated cancer rates because of dust carried
home on clothing.
But the risk to U.S. workers from asbestos has been reduced dramatically
by relatively inexpensive safety techniques, such as improving
ventilation, wetting the dust with water and using respirators.
The legal limit on asbestos exposure for workers is 0.1 fibers
per cubic centimeter of air, and compliance has not been a problem.
The United States used 21,700 metric tons of asbestos in 1996,
mostly in water pipes, brake linings and roof coatings. Consumption
is expected to continue at that level.
In everyday life, breathing asbestos is unavoidable. Asbestos
is a natural mineral released into the air by wind and erosion,
as well as from manmade sources such as brake linings.
Once asbestos is installed, it rarely causes problems to a building's
users. Only in a few instances - such as a janitor's removal
of asbestos insulation - will a worker be exposed to a high level
of asbestos for a short time.
Yet asbestos removal continues on a large scale when there is
concrete proof of no danger.
The renovation of a post office in Fort Myers, Fla., last year
is typical. The old floor was found to obtain asbetos. testing
found no asbetos fibers in the post office's air conditioning
filter. But the post office did what is now a common and costly
It halted construction and hired a special crew of men dressed
in spacesuits to remove the floor. Customers were banned from
the building. A counter was set up outdoors to sell stamps and
hand out mail. The cleanup added $155,000 to the original renovation
cost of $470,000.
EPA's shifting stand
Although asbestos has faded from the front page, its removal
continues at roughly the same pace, costing $3 billion to $4
billion a year the past decade, says Olin Jennings, a Columbia,
N.J., consultant who has tracked
asbestos-related spending. In addition to the $50 billion spent
so far, Jennings predicts $50 billion more will be spent before
the cleanup winds down in 20 years.
"It's a steady industry, but it's not as lucrative as it
once was because so many people jumped on the bandwagon. It got
very competitive in the 1990s," he says.
Epidemiologists - doctors who study risks - are especially frustrated
that asbestos spending has continued despite broad agreement
among scientists that it's a waste of money The folly is largely
the result of a fear of
lawsuits and bad advice from the Environmental Protection Agency
in the early days of the asbestos scare, before scientists had
enough evidence to judge the risks.
When the death toll to industrial workers from asbestos became
clear, the EPA rushed to act. In 1979, the EPA published a book
of guidance on asbestos, commonly called the Orange Book for
the eye-catching color of its cover. It said the only permanent
solution to asbestos in buildings was to take it out.
In 1983, the EPA issued an updated book, the Blue Book, which
declared that removal was "always appropriate, never inappropriate."
That policy has been followed, more or less, ever since, despite
backtracking by the EPA as scientific evidence accumulated that
the dangers were not as great as feared.
In 1985, the EPA published the Purple Book, which emphasized
"managing asbestos" rather than removing it.
In 1990, the EPA issued the Green Book, which said asbestos in
schools and offices presented a low risk. It noted that improper
asbestos removal could increase exposure by stirring up dust
But the EPA has never made a dramatic announcement or an effort
to reverse the multibillion-dollar asbestos removal effort that
its early pronouncements sparked.
Congress passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act in
1986. It ordered school districts to locate all asbestos in their
buildings and create a plan to manage it. It also imposed tight
regulations on asbestos removal, raising costs and ensuring that
the image of asbestos-rem oval workers in spacesuits would keep
Jennings estimates that 15% to 33% of spending on asbestos removal
has been in schools. New York City schools have spent more than
But starting in 1985, a flow of scientific studies began questioning
the wisdom of asbestos removal. The studies appeared in the most
respected publications, including Science and the New England
Journal of Medicine.
In 1991, the American Medical Association's Council on Scientific
Affairs reviewed all the studies on the risks of asbestos and
expressed frustration that the science was being ignored. "Educational
efforts by scientific organizations and government agencies have
been met with frustration, and some of their attempts have been
abandoned. In the meantime, real hazards to health smoking, improper
diet, inadequate exercise,
high-risk recreational activities - are disregarded by many persons
while they complain about the evils of industries whose actual
hazards to health often are small by comparison."
The AMA said asbestos removal represented a "mismatch between
scientific fact and the need for action."
Also in 1991, the Health Effects Institute, in an EPA- financed
report ordered by Congress, conducted the most comprehensive
study on the risk of asbestos in buildings. The two-volume study
found the lifetime risk of cancer for someone who worked in a
building containing asbestos was one in 250,000. By comparison,
outdoor air in urban areas has enough asbestos fibers to create
a one-in-25,000 lifetime risk of cancer. So an office worker
is 10 times safer inside a building made with asbestos than outside
Last year, a study for the European Commission reviewed the risks
and reached a similar conclusion.
"There does not appear to be sufficient risk to the health
of general building occupants to justify arbitrarily removing
inact asbestos-containing materials which are in a good state
of repair," the report said.
But the cold facts of science have been unable to overcome the
passion of public fear.
"It's like telling parents that there's a bomb in the basement
of your child's school, but there's only a one-in-a-million chance
it will go off,', says Malcolm Ross, a retired geologist at the
U.S. Geological Service. "They will demand that the bomb
be removed, no matter what the cost or likelihood of detonation
Ross says the environment is full of such bombs - environmental
risks - and it makes little sense to target a substance of relatively
low risk with an unlimited budget.
"I get furious when I read about some school spending a
fortune to remove asbestos," say,, Flood, the Arizona Health
Department epidemiologist. In a worst-case scenario, asbestos
might increase the 19,000 cancer deaths in his state each Year
"By comparison, we have tens of thousands of cases of skin
cancer every year and hundreds of deaths, yet we hardly spend
a dime telling people to be careful about exPosing themselves
to the sun," he says.
Thune, the epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society, says
there shouldn't be a rush to blame well-meaning federal regulators.
"It's not an issue of a blundering bureaucracy that doesn't
know how to do anything," he says. "It's hard in a
complex system to shuffle resources from one compartment to another
to get the greatest yield to public health."
Legal and economic considerations
also have made it difficult to change an asbestos policy that
doesn't make sense. Insurance companies don't like to insure
buildings containing asbestos.
Some state courts have ordered insurance companies to pay for
asbestos removal, ruling that the presence of asbestos is a type
of property damage covered by the policy, no different from damage
caused by a hurricane.
"Property insurers treat any building with asbestos very
gingerly," says Sean Moody, chief economist at the Insurance
Information Institute, an industry trade group. "The insurers
have been burned in the past, so they're very nervous about issuing
Moody says building owners, realizing the presence of asbestos
can send the value of their buildings plummeting, sometimes have
torched their properties and filed claims.
Banks are careful about financing the purchase or renovation
of buildings containing asbestos.
The way the law reads is that if there is an environmental problem,
anyone in the chain of title can be held responsible, going back
forever. Since the bank is the one with deep pockets, we're the
one everyone wants to sue," says Tom Frye, senior vice president
of real estate lending at Sun Trust banks in Nashville. "In
order to protect ourselves, banks have to make sure that asbestos
is taken care of before the loan is made. That could mean containing
it or removing it.
"I'm looking out my window now at an old I I-story building
that sold for $4.3 million. The new owner spent $900,000 on asbestos
abatement and converted it to a hotel. You don't have to be a
mathematician to know the building would have been worth $5.2
million without asbestos."
Frye is aware that the danger of asbestos in buildings is minimal.
But his job is to protect the bank's liability, not make social
"It's ridiculous what we sometimes have to demand of people,"
he says. "But that's what responsible bankers do. That's
the way of the world."