Tim Brown, a freelance writer, is a former Warren T. Brookes Fellow at the Cato Institute.
On August 6 of last year a bomb went off, sending shockwaves throughout the New York City public school system. The explosion, which subjected millions of parents and schoolchildren to fear, anxiety, and emotional distress, was not set by terrorists, but by politicians. It was the result of a national climate of environmental hysteria and an urban political system that could not rationally deal with three words: possible asbestos contamination.
The day before, special investigators from the City’s School Construction Authority Inspector General’s office called the State Department of Education in Albany to ask if they could see the asbestos management plans for each of the 1,069 New York City public schools. Without warning, investigators showed up 20 minutes later armed with service revolvers and search warrants. What they found, as they pored over thousands of documents, was that the school reports: “in addition to being incomplete and inaccurate, are so confusing and poorly organized that even an expert would have difficulty in determining specifically where asbestos is present in a particular school. For the ordinary concerned parent or teacher, the reports are incomprehensible.”
The next day New York Mayor David Dinkins held a press conference and ordered every New York City public school closed pending a reinspection for asbestos contamination. Operation Clean House had begun.
The New York asbestos saga really began in 1986 with the passage of the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) which mandated that local governments survey all schools to inventory and identify asbestos-containing material. New York’s original inspection process began in 1988 and was conducted by a 53-member Asbestos Task Force, under the School Construction Authority. The inspections were originally to be completed in October 1988, but the task force asked for an extension until May 1989. As of February 1989, only 630 inspections had been completed; at least 300 inspection reports were filed within the last few days of the deadline. Task force inspectors allegedly fabricated reports to indicate that inspections had taken place when in fact they had not.
By 1990 construction workers and building inspectors were reporting the discovery of damaged, exposed asbestos during school renovations in places that had been declared free of asbestos. Only in 1993 was the Inspector General’s office asked to investigate, however, after which city officials panicked.
Then they mismanaged the ensuing public communications effort. In fact, the actual risk of asbestos exposure to children was extremely low. The city’s acting Health Commissioner, Dr. Benjamin Chu, said that there was no evidence that students and staff had been exposed or harmed, and there “is really no basis for alarm now.” Even the Inspector General’s report that set the stage for Operation Clean House admitted that “Although the AHERA reports may be completely unreliable, it does not necessarily follow that every school is unsafe or must be closed.” But the mayor’s precipitous school closings left parents convinced that their children had been at risk. And the government would not release any specific information on which schools had been found to contain damaged asbestos, until after the particular school had been cleaned up, further reducing the city’s credibility: John C. Fager, co-chairman of the Parents Coalition for ‘Education, said that “Parents are totally in the dark . . . not informing them is just inviting more fear and hysteria.”
However, city officials, too, were obviously in the dark. Contrary to popular assumptions, neither AHERA, nor Environmental Protection Agency regulations, nor state environmental laws required closure of all the schools. After all, the schools remained open during the original AHERA inspections. Rather, like so many environmental issues, asbestos in schools is a political rather than scientific issue.
Mugged by Reality
But even the politicians eventually had to give in to reality. With only a handful of trained and certified asbestos inspectors, their original Herculean goal of visiting 35 schools a day was never realistic. As the deadline neared, and the pressure to open the schools on time increased, inspectors faced the same deadline pressures as the first asbestos task force. With 18 days to go only 197 schools had been inspected, leaving 743 to go. Something had to give. The new Schools Chancellor, Ramon C. Cortines, declared that all schools would open on September 20 except for a handful in which asbestos would be sealed or removed. As Cortines admitted, “If we had known what we know now on the 9th of September we might have made a decision to open [the schools on time].”
Obviously, the actual risk posed by asbestos did not change throughout this process, but rather, remained somewhere between hundreds and thousands of times lower than other everyday hazards facing schoolchildren. Scientists agree that the mere presence of asbestos does not pose a hazard if the asbestos is encapsulated in wall plaster, for instance. Only if asbestos is damaged so that the fibers are exposed to the air is a person likely to inhale asbestos particles, and even then, a very large concentration of airborne asbestos is necessary to pose a health risk. Yet, the city never attempted to measure airborne asbestos contamination, the only empirical evidence upon which to base a decision. In mid-September, a group of 17 scientists criticized city officials for not taking into account the wealth of scientific data available on asbestos.
As it turns out, samples taken after the school closings revealed particle levels below the Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, much lower than safe limits, and even lower than ambient outside levels. The latter should come as no surprise. A $4 million EPA review of asbestos data, including a survey of 170 schools published in 1991 by the Health Effects Institute-Asbestos Research, found indoor asbestos levels to be lower than those outside buildings.
Unfortunately, the asbestos scare reflects a larger pattern: the routine politicization of the environment in areas ranging from Alar to global warming. Off the record, even New York city officials admitted that closing the schools was less a scientific necessity and more a political remedy to mollify irate parents who had lost confidence in the school system.
In the end, the schools reopened. Along the way asbestos contractors made some money, parents were frightened, politicians postured, and scientists struggled to be heard. But while the New York schools seemed to get back to normal, the public remains as vulnerable as ever to new attacks of environmental hysteria—perhaps involving lead poisoning, perhaps ozone depletion, or perhaps something else.