Special Reports

May 29, 2007

Experts: EPA asbestos tests aren't enough

In the weeks since a monster tornado knocked down Greensburg, hundreds of residents and volunteers have been wading through the debris of nearly 1,000 flattened buildings.

In the weeks since a monster tornado knocked down Greensburg, hundreds of residents and volunteers have been wading through the debris of nearly 1,000 flattened buildings.

Now some experts say the government should be doing much more to protect the health of those residents and volunteers. Many of the homes were built before 1980, when construction materials often contained asbestos.

"It's a shame, because people are out there and most likely getting contaminated," said Leland Sumptur, a Lenexa asbestos abatement manager who teaches and has consulted nationally.

Government regulators acknowledge asbestos could be contaminating the housing debris. They have warned homeowners about that possibility but say they have no evidence of it.

In addition, federal and state regulations don't give regulators power to remove asbestos from single-family homes, said Becky Ingrum Dolph, an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency's regional office in Kansas City, Kan.

"We don't have jurisdiction over these private homes," said Beckie Himes, an EPA spokeswoman.

She and other government officials say that they have done everything they can legally to protect the residents and volunteers.

The regulators agree with asbestos experts on several points:

 Asbestos, a known carcinogen, is dangerous when inhaled or ingested.

 At this point, no one knows for certain if asbestos is present in the rubble of private homes.

 If it were known to be present, the cleanup would be far more controlled to protect the public. In fact, in at least three commercial buildings where asbestos is known to be present, the government has required a strict cleanup and cordoned off the area.

Controversy over testing

The crux of the debate is over testing.

On May 18 and 19, two weeks after the tornado struck, the EPA took eight air samples in and around downtown to try to determine if asbestos fibers were in the air. The results were negative.

If the samples had been positive, Dolph said, that would have shown there was imminent danger to human health and a federal provision in the law would have allowed the EPA to move in.

"If the air monitoring indicated there was a problem with asbestos in the air, then that would give us potential legal authority to go in and do something more," Dolph said.

But without positive samples, federal law doesn't give the EPA jurisdiction to take further action. "Legally, we don't have any authority to require the individual homeowner to do anything," Dolph said.

But several experts said testing by air is not sufficient, that the debris itself should be tested.

"For someone to suggest they did air sampling and they didn't find anything, that is so wrong to do that," said Celeste Monforton, a researcher and lecturer on public health policy with George Washington University. "It gives some people a false sense of security."

Monforton, who has worked as chief of the Mine Safety and Health Administration's health division, was involved in cases involving asbestos and miners.

"Really the risk is going to be to the people rummaging through the debris and what they are breathing there," Monforton said. "For someone walking down the street it might not be such a problem."

Probability of asbestos

Sumptur said the probability of asbestos in the rubble should be sufficient for the EPA to declare an imminent danger and begin testing.

Sumptur said he is using aerial photos of the Greensburg disaster provided to help teach his students how to identify materials likely to contain asbestos. He said houses built before the 1980s, such as many of those found in Greensburg, often contain asbestos in materials such as siding, floor tiles, insulation and plaster.

"I don't like to assume anything, but it's more likely yes than not" that there is asbestos, he said. "I would almost stake my job on it."

But EPA officials said suspicion isn't enough to do materials testing. The "imminent danger" provision of the law requires something stronger, such as positive air tests.

One of the first steps that should be taken in securing suspected asbestos in such sites is to wet it down regularly, said Bill Wood, branch manager of Alliance Environmental Group in California, which has dealt with numerous natural disasters such as wildfires and earthquakes.

That keeps the fibers from becoming airborne, he and Sumptur said.

"In this situation where it is raw, and it's dry, and they are scooping it up, you are talking about anybody who is around kids or anybody else could be contaminated," Sumptor said.

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