Asbestos not as dangerous to health as it was thought to be

For decades, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has conducted a war against asbestos, resulting in a nightmare of public fears, trial lawyers, lawsuits and corporate bankruptcies.

But when the World Trade Centre's towers collapsed on Sept. 11 and the media began reporting that the north tower had contained 40 floors of asbestos – all of which was then swirling around downtown Manhattan – the EPA said, in effect, don't worry.

EPA officials rushed to get out the message that asbestos was harmful only if breathed in at high levels and over long periods of time. When it was reported that tests had exceeded the EPA's safety levels, the agency explained that this was a "stringent standard based on long-term exposure" and repeated that the public was not at risk.

Here's how the perception of asbestos subsided from panic to relative complacency:

  • In the 1950s, scientist Irving Selikoff found links between cancer and workers in asbestos-using industries.

  • The EPA jumped in by the 1970s, with dire warnings that asbestos should be eradicated – and schools, public institutions and homeowners began spending billions of dollars removing it.

  • By the 1980s, although better science said the risks were greatly exaggerated, the agency continued to insist on tough rules for everyone from building planners to transport operators.

  • Then in 1992, an EPA report suggested the agency had mismanaged the affair.

    But by then at least 40 companies had gone bankrupt as a result of questionable lawsuits. And responsible scientists point out that untold sums of public money have been squandered on eradicating a non-existent health problem.

    Experts question how many other zero-threshold policies the EPA is pursuing in regard to other "harmful" substances are, even now, creating the kind of waste generated by the asbestos scares.

    Source: Kimberley A. Strassel, The EPA Comes Clean on Asbestos, Wall Street Journal, October 19, 2001.

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    FMF\23 October 2001
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