IS $30 million too much to pay to save one more future asbestos victim? This is the kind of economic and moral calculation at the heart of a challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) decision this summer virtually to ban asbestos use.
[In a further move, the EPA Tuesday sued the New York City Board of Education and filed 13 other lawsuits around the US in a crackdown on faulty asbestos removal.]
The shrinking asbestos industry admits that past uses of asbestos are linked to serious health problems. Medical experts commonly rate asbestos just behind smoking and radon gas in houses as a probable cause of cancer.
But those health problems are attributed to asbestos levels Americans are no longer exposed to. Since 1975, asbestos use has dropped 90 percent, and the number of people exposed to its fibers has dropped accordingly, says Grover Wrenn, a chemical-risk management consultant formerly with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Asbestos is heavily regulated but it is still used in car brakes, cement water pipes, shingles, and other products.
The EPA estimates the health risks of the remaining uses of asbestos are well under 1 percent of the risks from old exposure levels.
What remains high, says the Asbestos Information Association of North America, the industry trade group, is public fear of asbestos.
The group is suing the EPA over its decision last month to phase in a ban that will cut production and import of asbestos by about 94 percent by 1997.
The lawsuit comes two weeks after a Harvard University symposium on asbestos risks concluded that public fear of asbestos already in buildings is out of proportion to what the experts calculated to be the health risk.
The risk from environmental tobacco smoke, for example, is 200 to 400 times greater than even the most pessimistic estimates for asbestos, the symposium concluded.
The EPA took 10 years of study to decide on the asbestos ban, which does not deal with asbestos already in place. EPA Administrator William Reilly cited the serious health risk of asbestos and available replacement substances that offered less risk.
The industry and some other experts believe the ban to be out of proportion to the risk.
Robert Crandall, an economist with the Brookings Institution, contends that for each life saved by banning the use of asbestos cement pipes, within the first 13 years of the ban, the economic cost of using a replacement will run from $40 million to $105 million.
This is a far higher cost for each life saved than under most government safety regulations, says Dr. Crandall. The money could be better spent on saving lives some other way, such as on health care for the poor, he says. ``We're spending society's money very ineffectively to reduce risks.''
The EPA's own estimates of the cost per life saved by banning asbestos cement pipes run under $30 million - and probably much lower as cheaper replacement products come on the market.
But the overall figure for the new asbestos rules is just over $2 million for each life, according to John Rigby, EPA section chief for toxic substances. This is in the range of other EPA regulations, he says.
Richard Steffen, asbestos specialist for the California Assembly's Office of Research, takes a practical view of asbestos: ``If we keep putting it in, then we're just going to get stuck with taking it out.''