Issue: 5/02

"The asbestos threat appears to be overrated, and the billions spent on removal projects wasted."

So I wrote in April 1990, inspired by a report in the Jan. 1990 edition of Science magazine concluding the health hazard presented by casual exposure to asbestos building products was miniscule to nonexistent. Various public policy commentators made the same case, but sensible analysis was drowned out by the combined forces of junk science, bureaucratic inertia and news media blather.

Asbestos was the bogeyman of the hour--make that of approximately two decades--to the point where most American citizens believe it to be one of the most poisonous substances known to man. They believe this in large measure because the EPA told them so, and commanded public and private building owners to spend billions upon billions of dollars trying to remove every last speck of the evil fluff from indoor environments. Countless schools that didn't have enough funds to pay decent teacher salaries or fix the plumbing nonetheless were mandated to award six- and even seven-figure asbestos contracts. Often these went to dubious firms and sometimes resulted in more asbestos particles released into the surrounding environment than were present before the workers started messing with the stuff. Dozens of reputable, otherwise profitable companies had to declare bankruptcy due to the costs of asbestos litigation and settlements.

This, even though reputable scientists distinguish between two types of asbestos, with the one common to most building products deemed virtually harmless. This, even though the undeniable link between asbestos and lung diseases showed up almost entirely among people who worked in asbestos mining or manufacturing, and thus inhaled copious fibers day after day. This, even though nobody could pinpoint anyone getting sick from casual exposure.

A Fateful Reckoning

It so happens the World Trade Center contained a significant amount of asbestos. One of the televised press conferences in the days surrounding its terrible fate included a reporter's surrealistic question to Mayor Guiliani as to whether the dust cloud from the WTC collapse presented a serious health hazard due to asbestos. Level head that he has proven himself to be, the great mayor answered no. Air samples taken in the aftermath occasionally turned up levels of asbestos exceeding EPA standards, and the NYC media pursued this issue in the days and weeks that followed. The EPA's response was both comforting and outrageous.

The EPA reassured everyone that asbestos was harmful only if inhaled at high doses over a long period of time. The agency said not to worry about levels that exceeded its "stringent standard based on long-term exposure."

It was exactly the argument made by executives and attorneys of all those companies facing gazillion-dollar liabilities for inadvertently exposing people to casual contact with levels of asbestos exceeding the EPA's "stringent standard." It was the same argument ventured by everyone who saw asbestos hysteria for what it was. In fact, even the EPA issued an internal report in 1992 suggesting the agency may have overstated the danger. Nothing ever came of it, though. The EPA was too imbued with bureaucratic arrogance to fess up to the truth publicly.

Even now, the EPA's admission was low-keyed and not given the attention it deserves by a news media thoroughly engaged in exaggerating the threat of anthrax to the general public. The Oct. 19, 2001, Wall Street Journal ran an article titled, "The EPA Comes Clean on Asbestos," which inspired this column. I have seen no other press devoted to the EPA's remarkable about-face.

It's something to keep in mind, however, when evaluating all the other environmental bogeymen whose dire threats have resulted in few, if any, identifiable casualties.

For some reason, the phrase "toxic mold" comes to mind.