The Asbestos Nightmare

J. Brent Kynoch

June 1, 2002

Though it’s still booming, the asbestos business is quite different from the one that we knew in the 1980s. You would think that after more than 20 years of asbestos abatement activity, we would have this industry under control. However, it’s far from it, and certainly nowhere near where it was more than a decade ago-and it’s getting worse. Perhaps the largest single change in the abatement business is that building owners and managers no longer have the fear of asbestos that existed in the 1980s. This is both good and bad for the abatement business. Good, because building owners and managers now can make rational, fact-induced decisions regarding asbestos presence in their buildings. But it’s also bad, because complacency has set in regarding the selection and hiring of both asbestos abatement contractors and asbestos abatement consultants.

Overall, complacency regarding asbestos, asbestos contamination and asbestos abatement hazards outweigh the good that may have been created by better information and a subsiding of fears surrounding asbestos. Complacency is producing poorer quality work by a certain segment of asbestos abatement contractors, and this problem is further fueled by a lack of enforcement. It’s leading the industry toward an inevitable disaster that will surely tip the scales back again in favor of more enforcement, more oversight and, of course, more cost.

Complacency of Government Officials

Not only does complacency exist among building owners and managers, it also exists with regulatory and enforcement officials regarding asbestos in buildings. One need only look at the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) handling of the asbestos contamination associated with the collapse of the World Trade Center to understand how complacency has affected our regulators’ ability to make logical, informed decisions. The EPA misreported the asbestos hazards that existed in the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse by stating that there were very low levels of airborne asbestos detected. What they failed to do was to check the inside of nearby buildings that might have had asbestos-laden dust tracked into them.

In the wake of the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, the EPA was quick to begin monitoring the outdoor air, using the schools clearance criteria of 70 structures per mm2 as the benchmark for safe air. In a school, a contractor’s work isn’t complete and people aren’t allowed back into the abatement area until the asbestos fiber concentration is less than 70 structures/mm2. Thus, it was prudent for the EPA to use this as a benchmark for safe air. However, as soon as a number of samples came up above this level, EPA was quick to explain that "levels above 70 structures per square millimeter do NOT imply an immediate health threat. Asbestos exposure becomes a health concern when high concentrations of asbestos fibers are inhaled over a long period. Illness is very unlikely to result from a single, high-level exposure, or from a short period of exposure to lower levels."

Most importantly, the EPA collected all of these samples from stationary locations sampling outdoor air. It failed to collect indoor air samples from buildings that were impacted by asbestos-laden dust generated from the WTC collapse. Sampling performed inside buildings by a private firm, HP Environmental of Reston, Va., showed that there were very significant levels of both airborne asbestos and asbestos-laden dust, with fibers that were extremely small. (These fibers were so small that they likely weren’t even detected by the EPA’s testing.)

After HP Environmental’s testing became public, the EPA quietly began testing in buildings. The EPA’s work was so quiet, in fact, that the results are still not publicly available on its Web site. However, on May 8, the agency announced a comprehensive clean-up plan for all residences south of Canal Street in Manhattan. The EPA’s response to the Sept. 11 disaster points out that even officials charged with creating and maintaining regulations have become complacent about asbestos hazards.

Complacency Among Building Owners

The complacency among building owners and managers has caused many of these firms to begin hiring asbestos abatement contractors without abatement specifications and without independent oversight in both air monitoring and final clearance sampling. This has led to a steep decline in the quality of work being done by some asbestos abatement contractors. Without independent oversight and final clearance monitoring, some asbestos abatement contractors are cutting corners on negative pressure enclosures, decontamination systems and fine cleaning. The quality of asbestos abatement work is difficult for an owner or manager to measure, so it’s going largely unchecked. There’s widespread agreement from contractors and consultants in the industry regarding this trend.

During the recent annual conference of the Environmental Information Association, a meeting called "The Asbestos Roundtable" generated significant discussion about the degradation of the quality of asbestos abatement work being done today. Many attendees complained that there was little or no enforcement of existing regulations and that owners just want to get the job done cheaply. For the most part, the contractors and consultants gathered in that room are trying to provide high quality work to their clients, but they’re being hurt by lower-priced contractors who are cutting corners and charging less money. Owners are hiring firms that can give them a turnkey job, by providing asbestos abatement, demolition and air monitoring all under one contract.

The EPA says that enforcement activity related to asbestos abatement is up. At the same time, an informal survey of several contractors from around the nation indicates that they’re experiencing fewer or the same number of visits from enforcement officials on their projects. If the words from the EPA and the results of the informal survey can be believed, the EPA is having greater success catching the "bad guys" and, therefore, are making fewer visits to the projects of the "good guys." In my opinion, this isn’t true.

What does the survey show? It says that even though the EPA says enforcement activity is up, the visits aren’t being made to the job sites of the contractors that we interviewed. There were some exceptions to this trend, specifically in New York state, where the interviewed contractor said it had a visit on 100 percent of the projects by a New York State Department of Labor official. The problem is that "these officials do not deliver any teeth …and they only visit the job sites between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday."

The other interesting trend pointed out in this survey is that the entity hiring the asbestos contractor, has, in most cases, decided to let the contractor hire its own monitoring firm. This means that the contractor has control over the monitoring firm, and can determine their schedule and the number of samples to be collected. Most contractors are using monitoring firms only to provide short term exposure limit monitoring and final sampling. Thus, there’s no control over the work practices of the contractor by an independent firm, which is how most asbestos exposures outside of the work site can occur. There is a regulatory requirement (with the exception of a few states) for independent daily monitoring, but the EPA makes strong recommendations for the hiring of an independent monitoring firm to oversee and inspect the project, to develop specifications for the project and, finally, to conduct final visual inspections and final air clearance sampling for the project.

Even more disturbing is the realization that the regulations are clearly being disregarded by some building owners in not providing a thorough survey of asbestos-containing materials to the contractor before a project has begun. More than half of the contractors interviewed said that there’s no survey on the majority of their projects. This is a direct violation of the existing regulations, and contractors aren’t bringing this to the attention of their clients …they’re just "’doin’ the job." Enforcement officials also are reluctant to cite an owner for an asbestos violation, thus the trend continues. This means that other service industries could be sending employees into buildings that have asbestos hazards, with no idea that the asbestos exists.

The reality of the asbestos abatement industry in 2002 is that the quality of work has diminished significantly over the last 10 years. What will it take to improve the quality of the work? A return of strict enforcement of existing asbestos regulations is one method. Another would be a major litigation related to poor quality of asbestos abatement activities. Another incentive for better work would occur if the citations given to building owners for asbestos notification violations increases significantly.

The Legislation Exists

In the United States, federal regulatory authorities have enacted legislation and regulations that, on paper, create an "airtight" containment for the identification and correction of any asbestos hazards that may exist in the country’s buildings. However, the reality is that lack of enforcement and blatant disregard of these regulations by regulatory and enforcement authorities means that the "containment" is far from airtight. Such attitudes from government officials exacerbates the complacency that exists among building owners and managers, and is leading to an unraveling of the asbestos abatement industry.

The National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) Regulation (40CFR, Part 61), promulgated by the EPA, requires that, before any demolition or renovation activity occurs in a building, the building or part of the building that will be affected must be inspected for the presence of friable and nonfriable asbestos containing material before the renovation of demolition activity begins.

Likewise, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), in the asbestos in construction standard (29 CFR 1926.1101), requires that building and facility owners shall determine the presence, location, and quantity of asbestos containing material at a work site before any construction, demolition, alteration, repair or maintenance begins. Further, the building or facility owners must notify persons or companies that will be performing work in a building of the presence, location, and quantity of asbestos containing material that might be affected by their activities.

Additionally, both the NESHAP and OSHA regulations contain specific criteria for the proper abatement of asbestos hazards, protection of workers performing the abatement and others in adjacent spaces, and for proper disposal of asbestos containing materials once they’re removed. Along with the federal regulations, specific state and local regulations often go into greater detail regarding the requirements for identifying and remediating unique asbestos hazards.

Federal regulations don’t require a specific clearance criteria for public and commercial buildings. However, a clearance criteria is established by federal regulations for asbestos abatement activities performed in schools. This criteria is an airborne level of asbestos fibers that’s less than 70 structures per mm2, when air samples are collected in accordance with the standard and analyzed by Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM). This criteria has become a de facto standard for all abatement activities, whether performed in schools or other buildings.

Thus, on paper the regulations look relatively good in protecting workers and the public from asbestos exposure. However, enforcement of these regulations by both the EPA and OSHA is deplorable. OSHA hasn’t issued a single citation to an owner for failure to comply with the communication of hazards portion of the asbestos in construction standard.

The Nightmare

Some areas around the country have already begun to experience the nightmare being caused by this complacency. For example, in upstate New York, a number of contractors have been sentenced to jail terms for improper asbestos removals and for falsifying air monitoring records. Worse yet, the work that led to these convictions was being performed in a government building on a weekend with no supervision or oversight. What does the owner expect?

Shoddy work like this in New York state led to the formation of a group called the Professional Abatement Contractors of New York (PACNY). PACNY provides support and a united voice for those interested in a powerful, intelligent force in the industry. This group has realized that they’re in the middle of the nightmare, so the contractors that want to "do the job right" have banded together to try to rid their state of the "bad guy" contractors. The "bad guys" are cutting corners and endangering the livelihood of the good firms and unsuspecting persons that are being exposed to asbestos.

The unfortunate reality of asbestos work is that the quality can’t be measured at the completion of the project. The work must be monitored and checked during the course of the abatement activity to assure that it’s being done properly, and in accordance with existing regulations and any governing specifications. The EPA points this out repeatedly in all of its guidance material on asbestos abatement.

Without specifications, without oversight, without independent air monitoring and without enforcement, some projects will continue to be poorly executed and the risk exposure to persons working in adjacent spaces and those returning after an abatement activity will continue to rise. The unfortunate reality of asbestos abatement work is that exposures don’t result in immediate injury or symptoms. This means that poor work will continue unchecked, because no one is getting sick immediately. Unfortunately, it will take a "train wreck" of sorts before quality is brought back in line with the expectations proclaimed in the regulations. The nightmare is underway, and those of us in the industry are allowing it to go unchecked. We risk our own businesses and the health and safety of those around us by not calling out the problems that exist. From the survey, asbestos still makes up the biggest portion of business for all of the firms interviewed. Yet, we’re letting shoddy work practices by others drive the quality of our work down. The industry has the tools to assure safe and effective work …all that has to be done is to follow the regulations and the guidance of the EPA. Is that so difficult?