To Yank Or Not To Yank?

Here is how Mason, Texas (population: 2,041) learned it could turn an abandoned high-school gym into a youth center despite an asbestos-covered boiler:

Eula Grantham in Miles, Texas, saw an issue of the AIM Report, the conservative newsletter from Reed Irvine's Accuracy In Media, with new scientific data contradicting asbestos fears. The newsletter said that the national asbestos scare was little more than media bias and big-government henny-penny-ism and that in fact the sky wasn't falling after all: asbestos wasn't a danger so long as you didn't mess with it. She distributed the clipping to the local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter. DAR member Mary C. Cook, having heard of the asbestos problem in Mason, sent the article to the youth center board. Chairman Spider Johnson used it to persuade the board to cancel its $5,000 asbestos-removal contract, lock the boiler-room door and welcome the youth of Mason in for dancing, pool and basketball.

Should Reed Irvine be dictating national asbestos policy.? Well, nobody else is. Information on how to handle the fibrous, heat-resistant stuff has been so contradictory that nobody knows what to do with it. Lacking guidance from Washington, Americans are turning to back channels like newsletters, rumors and chance encounters with scholarly journals. Now a potential $30 billion asbestos-control industry has reached a turning point. After a brief, spectacular climb-annual spending leaped from $1.8 billion in 1987 to $4.2 billion in 1989--spending dipped to $2.7 billion in 1991, according to Neil D. Wernick, a Pennsylvania asbestos expert.

In fact, asbestos is turning out to be less dangerous than many of us once thought. Most Americans first learned of the dangers from tales of tragedy: of asbestos's contribution to lung disease and cancer in miners and construction workers with heavy daily exposure. Then Brooke T. Mossman, the University of Vermont pathologist, coauthored a detailed 1990 report in Science magazine that identified two types of asbestos. Prolonged exposure to one variety, called amphibole fibers, appears to bring serious tissue damage and cancer. But the form known as chrysotile is relatively harmless and makes up more than 90 percent of the asbestos in U.S. buildings. For two years, the Environmental Protection Agency and some scientists tried to tell school principals, landlords, mortgage bankers. and homeowners that instead of ripping asbestos out and endangering workers and passersby in the process, it was better to seal it and leave it alone.

So schoolchildren and office workers could breathe easier-if they got the news. Not being in danger didn't make a compelling story. And so the Science magazine report got relatively little news play. Meanwhile, the EPA sent mixed messages. Expert Wernick says, "They gave all the signals that they wanted it removed and then appeared to have reversed themselves. " While calling for maintenance of old asbestos, the agency fought to ban manufacture of new asbestos products. Confused school-board members and parents found more direct arguments in publications like the AIM Report and Michael J. Bennett's book "The Asbestos Racket. " City officials with science backgrounds also had unusual influence. Newton, Mass., killed a $3.5 million asbestos-removal plan urged by its school committee because two members of the board of aldermen were biologists who had read the Science report.

For their part, EPA officials say they are damned any way they turn. School districts once asked for flexibility but now complain about lack of direction from Washington. "If we say leave the asbestos there, they say the parents will yell at them, " said one official. "If we say take it out, they say that's too expensive. " Environmentalists fear the backlash will go too far and that people will ignore what dangers still exist. Erik Olson, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, had to remind his own children's school that federal law still required it to come up with an asbestos-abatement plan.

The abatement industry isn't likely to waste away. Some of its decline stemmed from the real-estate recession, and removal companies will probably rebound this year as the economy revives. As it turns out, real-estate agents and mortgage bankers encourage removal, new EPA policy or not, because asbestos-free buildings sell better-no matter what Reed Irvine says. In the end, the market might dictate what Washington will not.

Photo: Lock the boiler-room door and 1st the kids play. Johnson in the youth-center basement (DAVID TILLERY-MIND TIME PRODUCTIONS)


Long Odds 


Death from exposure to asbestos Din buildings is highly unlikely.

How unlikely? A comparison: 


CAUSE                    EST. PREMATURE 

                      DEATHS (PER 100,000) 


Smoking                      21,900 

Motor-vehicle accidents       1,600 

Indoor radon                    400 

Diagnostic X-rays                75 

Lightning                         3 

Asbestos in school building       1