Asbestos: Judging the Risk

Asbestos is an emotional subject, but Robin Marantz Henig's article, "Questions, But Few Answers" {May 19}, was well balanced in its exploration of the issue of asbestos in buildings.

Unfortunately, the preceding photographic essay may have confused your readers. The photographs chronicle the effects of asbestos in occupational settings. Some people who years ago worked with asbestos in mining, milling and manufacturing facilities and later developed asbestos-related disease were exposed to high concentrations of asbestos fibers in their day-to-day work. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration now enforces tough safety measures in those occupational environments.

In non-occupational environments, however -- in public and private commercial buildings, such as office and residential buildings -- a substantial body of scientific studies has concluded that typical asbestos levels are not likely to pose significant health risks. In fact, an article recently published by a panel of experts convened by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concluded that the average concentration of asbestos fibers in air inside "the vast majority of buildings with asbestos as surfacing materials" is not significantly different from the air outside such buildings.

Given these scientific studies, it is all the more tragic that unlicensed, untrained and underinsured contractors ripping out asbestos materials can actually raise the concentration of airborne asbestos to dangerous levels. While some states and even cities now require asbestos abatement contractors to be licensed, Virginia and the District of Columbia are not among them.

If there is any approach that should be taken regarding the issue of asbestos in buildings, Ms. Henig's article makes it clear that the approach should be, "Go slowly." Hastily enacted and unwarranted removal of asbestos materials from buildings places tremendous financial burdens on building owners and homeowners -- burdens that scientific evidence indicates are not at all commensurate with the risks. Most important, however, unnecessary removals could create health hazards where none existed previously.

John F. Welch

President, Safe Building Alliance

Washington

On Page 15, the caption with two photographs stated: "Although asbestos has now been banned in new construction of municipal water systems, the National Cancer Institute estimates there still may be more than 200,000 miles of pipes that contain asbestos fibers." The statement that asbestos in water pipes has been banned is not true. Asbestos cement pipe is currently being manufactured and installed for use in the United States. As a matter of fact, the international consensus is that there is no assessable risk to the health of consumers imbibing asbestos via drinking water. B.J. Pigg President, A/C Pipe Producers Association Arlington

Editor's note: In November of 1985, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a non-enforceable standard for drinking water of 7.1 million long fibers per liter as a maximum contaminant level goal. In January of 1986, the EPA called for a total ban on asbestos products. Neither proposal has been implemented, according to an EPA spokesman.

Aspartame's Safety (Cont'd)

Dr. Arthur Raines takes The Post's reporter to task {Letters, June 2} for suggesting -- based on the papers presented at a recent Washington meeting (on "Dietary Phenylalanine and Brain Function") -- that "controversy" continues to exist among scientists concerning the safety of aspartame.

To support his conclusion that "the facts hardly justify . . . concern," he offers two observations which, to this reader, appear mutually incompatible: He first indicates that he attended the meeting and presumably read or listened to the papers. But he then states that, because the most worrisome constituent of aspartame -- the amino acid phenylalanine -- is also present in dietary proteins, we need not be concerned about its possible neurotoxicity.If there was one conclusion with which every speaker at the meeting seemed to agree, it was that effects on the brain of the phenylalanine in aspartame are opposite to those of the phenylalanine in dietary proteins. This is because all proteins contain, besides phenylalanine, very large quantities of other amino acids that block phenylalanine's ability to pass from the bloodstream to the brain. (In fact, a high-protein meal contains so much of these other amino acids that it actually lowers brain phenylalanine levels.) But aspartame lacks any of these other amino acids. Hence the sweetener becomes the first phenylalanine-containing food that man has ever eaten, throughout his evolutionary history, that actually elevates brain phenylalanine levels.

Whether this elevation actually leads to the various adverse reactions that some consumers attribute to aspartame (at last count, the FDA is exploring 3,400 such reports) remains a subject of legitimate scientific inquiry.

Richard J. Wurtman, MD

Cambridge, Mass.

Sex Drive and Sexism

In your cover story on the sex drive {May 26}, an illustration explained the sociobiological theory in this way: "The chances of survival for the children increase if the mother has a permanent partner to protect her and help care for the children." Thus, "woman may be biologically inclined toward having a single partner." "If a woman has more than one small child, rearing them often requires the aid of a man."

Woman may be biologically inclined to produce offspring, even to the point of mating with the strongest male to ensure bearing the strongest children. But what biological factors tell her that the same male will be best at ensuring the children's survival once born? Biologically, one would think another woman would be her best partner, as they are not only as capable of protecting the children as males are but also of nourishing them if their natural mother dies.

And why limit yourself to one strong partner? Surely two or three would increase life expectancy even more.

What aid does a man provide that requires him to help raise children that a woman cannot also provide? And if a woman's goal is to perpetrate her genes, what biological function tells her to have several children all at once, decreasing life expectancy for all, as opposed to having fewer children spaced over a longer period of time, thus ensuring the best care for each?

Why did you not just label this article, "A Sexist Explanation of Men's and Women's Sex Drive"?

Lori McKay

Poolesville

Letters intended for publication must be signed and include the writer's home address and home and business telephone numbers. Letters may be edited. Although we are unable to acknowledge all letters, we appreciate the time and value the viewpoints of those who write. Send letters to Health Section, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.