Fourteen percent of commercial and public buildings in the United States contain damaged asbestos materials, exposing occupants to the risk of inhaling the tiny, cancer-causing fibers, the Environmental Protection Agency reported yesterday.
But the EPA, in a report to Congress, offered no plan of inspection, notification or removal of damaged asbestos from the estimated 500,000 buildings nationwide. Instead, the agency recommended a three-year program of training and education, and assessment of an ongoing project to rid schools of the lethal fibers.
The agency's failure to propose remedial steps was criticized by all sides in the asbestos debate -- industry, environmentalists, unions and Congress.
Assistant EPA Administrator John A. Moore said comprehensive regulations are not "appropriate" because of the limited number of contractors qualified to remove asbestos and concern that improper removal of the crumbling fibers would further contaminate the air. Moreover, he said, an asbestos inspection and abatement program for the nation's 3.6 million public and commercial buildings would cost $51 billion and divert "finite resources" from the school project.
In the meantime, he said, the greatest risk is faced by occupants of buildings whose air ducts are lined with asbestos and maintenance workers exposed to pipes and boilers insulated with the fire-retarding material.
"Don't panic," Moore said at a news conference. "There's nothing to suggest there are terrible conditions that exist out there in any routine fashion."
The Service Employees International Union criticized the report and called "unacceptable" the EPA's failure to require that occupants be notified of asbestos dangers. John F. Welch, president of the Safe Buildings Alliance, which is made up of former producers of asbestos building materials, faulted the agency for failing to quantify the risk of exposure.
"Everything in this report points to aggressive federal intervention except EPA's recommendations, which amount to nothing more than sweeping this alarming problem under the rug," said Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), who sponsored the law requiring the removal of asbestos in schools.
Congress, in enacting the school program in 1986, also required the EPA to quantify the risk of asbestos in public and commercial buildings -- offices, shops, hotels, apartment houses, factories, hospitals and churches -- and determine whether to extend the inspection and removal regulations imposed on schools.
Asbestos has been used since the 1920s as a fire-retardant and insulating material. It is a potential danger when sprayed or applied to building surfaces in "friable," or easily crumbled form. If disturbed or damaged, it releases toxic fibers that when inhaled can cause lung and abdominal cancer and other lung diseases.
The EPA found that of 231 buildings inspected, 14 percent contained damaged asbestos material and most of those were "significantly damaged," the agency said. Most of the worst cases -- 317,000 buildings if the findings are extrapolated -- involve asbestos used as thermal system insulation in nonpublic areas of buildings, such as boiler rooms, the agency reported.
Air monitoring of 43 federal government buildings showed that fiber concentrations were very low, even in areas with significantly damaged asbestos material, according to the report.
The report did not quantify the number of people routinely exposed to damaged asbestos material. But a theoretical risk analysis based on 1980 Census figures showed that about 34 million people occupied residential, public and federal government buildings with friable asbestos.
The EPA recommended four steps to deal with asbestos: increase the number of trained asbestos contractors; inform building owners of the dangers, focusing their attention on thermal insulation; improve enforcement of workplace and air pollution laws directed at asbestos, and "objectively assess" the school program's effectiveness.