Why is Asbestos Regulation So Lax?

Asbestos in buildings could be a major source of exposure for anyone who maintains, remodels or works in structures built in the last century

A recent news investigation of asbestos abatement contractors and the virtually nonexistent regulation is yet another example of how asbestos is ignored or treated as not a significant problem. This report comes out of Michigan, but it could happen in St. Louis, New Orleans, Pittsburg, Los Angeles or any city with structures that were built prior to 1990.

Words you never want to hear about asbestos

"It would get gritty in your teeth." When the "grit" in question is potentially asbestos fibers, such a statement is utterly frightening. The speaker of that statement was a school custodian, who was instructed to dry sand tile floors in a school. They used a leaf blower (!) to move what they assumed was wax dust, inhaling clouds of the material in the process.

After one of the custodians later learned a school cook had died from asbestos-related cancer, she became concerned that the sanding had exposed them to large quantities of asbestos-contaminated dust. The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) investigated and found there had been asbestos exposure and proposed fines of $27,000, but later reduced the fines to $1,800.

The school district then may have retaliated against one of the custodians for complaining of the lack of training or testing for asbestos and the federal OSHA is currently investigating these allegations.

The school district also claims that they have tests that show the buildings were free of airborne asbestos fibers. However, one of the reports appears to have been forged. Of course, if the district hired an asbestos abatement contractor to clean up the building after the sanding had occurred, it may be ostensibly correct by asserting that when the test was performed, there may not have been any asbestos in the air.

But that would have very little value in the discussion of whether the custodians were exposed during sanding. One of the schools was built in the late 1950s and very likely has asbestos containing materials in the flooring, ceiling tile, insulation wrapped around pipes and air ducts, drywall, plaster and roofing materials.

Shameful history of asbestos use

Asbestos first caused concerns a hundred years ago, when British mining and processing companies noticed a high incident of lung disease among employees who worked with asbestos. However, these and other companies limited the information they provided to workers, and it was not until 1971 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed the mineral as hazardous.

Sadly, it would be almost another 20 years before the agency would attempt to restrict the use of the mineral, but after the asbestos industry sued the EPA and won in court, the agency never attempted to implement a total ban on the material in the U.S.

Long lasting legacy

During the 1950s and 1960s, asbestos was used in thousands of applications in building and construction, and millions of structures across the U.S. contain the deadly mineral. As long as it is not disturbed, the harm from the mineral may be limited. Once it is made airborne, as occurs during sanding, cutting, drilling or any other process that shreds or aerosolizes the material, the risk skyrockets, and if you are unfortunate to inhale dust containing asbestos fibers, a single exposure may be all that is necessary to lead to an asbestos-related disease.

Cost of doing business

The lack of significant fines for contractors who engage in shoddy work or who expose their workers to asbestos in violation of the regulations simply encourages this behavior. If it will cost a legitimate asbestos abatement contractor hundreds or thousands of dollars to properly train and equip their workers, a fly-by-night business can undercut other bids by ignoring all of that.

When fines for violating these regulations are substantially lower than the cost of compliance, it makes it more likely that irresponsible contractors will ignore the rules, expose their workers and anyone near the job site and if they are caught, they treat the trivial fine as a cost of doing business. Michigan only has four inspectors, so even the risk of those fines is minimal.

A problem that is not going away

In Detroit, the city has demolished more than 8,000 homes and is planning to remove 32,000 more. It is likely that every one of those homes should receive asbestos abatement prior to demolition.

The failure to effectively enforce laws regarding asbestos abatement is likely to expose hundreds of people to the deadly effects of asbestos contamination. However, it may be years or decades before they show symptoms of mesothelioma or asbestosis.

This problem is not limited to Michigan. This problem will affect every city and town in Missouri and throughout the United States. As the structures age and are remodeled or demolished, effective regulation of the abatement process will need to be in place, or the death toll from asbestos will grow unabated.