EPA Experiments May Have Lead to Asbestos Exposures: Report

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of the Inspector General indicates that asbestos removal experiments conducted by the agency over the past decade endangered human health and the environment. 

In a special report issued on September 25, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) calls on the EPA to correct methods used during testing conducted between 2004 and 2012, known as The Alternative Asbestos Control Method (AACM) experiments.

According to the OIG, the EPA decided not to enforce rules so that it could test alternative asbestos demolition methods outside of a controlled laboratory setting. The OIG says that the agency overstepped its enforcement discretion by providing a No Action Assurance (NAA) letter for the project. The letters are only meant to be issued in extremely unusual cases, according to the report, and the AACM experiments did not qualify.

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The AACM experiments began with the intention of research alternative methods to demolish buildings containing asbestos, a proposal which was first proposed in Fort Worth, Texas in 1999. However, they had inappropriate oversight and lacked clearly defined research goals, the OIG report charges.

The OIG calls the result of the AACM experiments a waste in resources and charges the agency with exposing workers in the project and the general public to unsafe levels of asbestos.

In addition, the OIG report claims the EPA disregarded research guidance designed to ensure the research quality and agreed not to enforce environmental laws, the primary mission of the agency, during the research when other legal means for conducting the research were available.

Asbestos Health Concerns

Asbestos is a highly fibrous substance, which has been linked to a number of serious health problems, including lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis.

Although use of asbestos has been banned for nearly 30 years, the substances remains in many older homes and buildings. In addition, many of the health problems linked to asbestos are not diagnosed until decades after exposure, causing the cancer to be at a very advanced stage by the time it is discovered, resulting in a very short life-expectancy.

Because asbestos is such a harmful substance the EPA requires trained technicians to removed asbestos from buildings before they are demolished to prevent the fibers entering the air and sickening the public.

The AACM experiments were designed to test alternative removal methods, such as wetting materials containing asbestos before and during the demolition and removal process. This technique is currently approved for buildings on the verge of collapse.

The EPA spent more than $2 million in contractor costs from 2004 to 2012 and $1.2 million in research staff time on the experiments.

The OIG has proposed measures for the EPA to follow and corrective actions to allow for improved research oversight. Actions include requiring research to follow a controlled process, tracking project costs, and resolving internal EPA comments. A process for review of alternative regulatory emissions control methods should also be established.

“Improving oversight of EPAs research activities can minimize the risk of waste, noncompliance with EPA rules and policies and project failures,” the OIG report states.

The OIG made 11 corrective recommendations to the EPA. The EPA has responded and complied with 10 of the 11 corrective actions, only one item remains outstanding.

The EPA has not approved the alternative asbestos removal methods tested and will not use it as part of its standards for emissions and air pollutants.

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