The snail's pace at the Environental Protection Agency and budget cutting by the Office of Management and Budget have made it difficult for public and private schools to protect children from asbestos, a proven carcinogen, a recent General Accounting Office report says.

EPA initiated a "technical assistance program" in 1979 that encouraged voluntary inspections and asbestos abatement in schools. But the agency did not tell schools how to conduct their inspections or how to determine when asbestos posed a safety hazard, the GAO said. As a result, some school officials conducted visual inspections, others simply looked at blueprints and about 30 percent of the schools have not conducted any inspections. Without federal guidance, some schools removed all the asbestos while others did not, the GAO said.

Congress passed legislation in 1980 that allowed schools to apply for federal funds to remove asbestos, but the administration has not provided the money to do the job.

In May, EPA adopted a rule that requires schools to conduct asbestos inspections by June 1983. It also has said it will establish hazard criteria for asbestos by November. In the meantime, the GAO said, "there is no assurance that school occupants are being adequately protected."