ASBESTOS will insulate the walls of many classrooms across the United States when children return to school this year. The material is viewed as a health risk, but scientists are debating whether buildings are safer if asbestos is left in place or removed. While the debate proceeds, cool heads must prevail. And parents should be aware of how local school boards are responding to new information. Four years after the Environmental Protection Agency required attention to asbestos problems in public and private schools, many school districts have failed to comply with their own management plans. School budgets are strained to the limit, and even modest asbestos removal is expensive.
In practice, the EPA's regulations amount to a chew-toy for environmentalists. School districts that don't comply aren't penalized. And the EPA relies heavily on complaints from school custodians and concerned parents.
The health risk of asbestos has been thoroughly studied. Asbestos miners and construction workers have been found to be at greatest danger, but evidence is soft for lower levels of contact.
Although private businesses and homes are not covered by current regulations, a growing number of property owners have removed asbestos in anticipation of future regulation, regardless of the cost. Liability suits lie in wait. In a soft real estate market, the very mention of asbestos can lower property values.
Asbestos is one of a number of substances once thought beneficial that have since raised concerns about toxic hazards in the environment. This isn't surprising in a society bent on technological and chemical innovation. People should respond to these situations not with panic, but with concern and a commitment to take the best course of action.
A coming congressional study on asbestos conducted by the Health Effects Institute of Cambridge, Mass., may help point that course for school boards and businesses. Society's goal must be to attain and sustain a wholesome environment.