Asbestos: Are the Risks Acceptable?

March 9, 1990

Report Outline
Special Focus


The Environmental Protection Agency has labeled asbestos a public-health hazard, and Congress has mandated that the nation's schools clean up hazardous asbestos. Some members now want to extend the asbestos regulations to other commercial and public buildings. But as Congress gets ready to take up the issue, some scientists are questioning whether the material is dangerous enough to warrant spending billions of dollars to remove it.

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Ever since research on shipyard workers in the 1960s established a link between lung disease and asbestos, the public has ranked the mineral right up with tobacco as a respiratory health hazard. In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency made the danger official by classifying the mineral a “hazardous air pollutant.” And in 1986, mounting public concern led Congress to enact the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), which mandated a thorough—and expensive—program of inspection and management of asbestos in the nation's public and private schools.

Now, four years and millions of taxpayer dollars later, new studies are reassessing the dangers of asbestos in buildings. Some researchers are suggesting that the money spent to comply with federal asbestos regulations—$3 billion for full implementation, according to the EPA; more than twice that, according to others—may actually make the problem worse.

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