Asbestos can never be eliminated from the environment and Americans should learn how to live with it safely rather than try to remove all of it from buildings, a panel of the American Medical Association says.
Contrary to what was described as public "misconceptions," asbestos poses far less risk to the health of the everyday occupants of buildings than that posed by smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, improper diet and lack of exercise, the association's Council on Scientific Affairs said in a paper published yesterday.
And while asbestos is a threat to workers who may disturb it in the course of their duties, the article says, the risk to others can be contained through management procedures that, if properly employed, could make it possible to avoid wholesale, expensive removal as a matter of routine.
Asbestos, which has been used for decades in insulation and construction, has been found to cause afflictions and cancers ranging from relatively minor problems to fatal conditions like one form of lung cancer, mesothelioma.
The AMA position amounts to a tacit endorsement of federal policy on the handling of asbestos in school buildings.
Under the policy, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends that asbestos that has not been damaged be left in place and that it be periodically inspected. Asbestos that might be vulnerable to disturbance or damage should be enclosed and protected. Also, the EPA says, asbestos should be removed only if it is damaged or crumbling or when it is disturbed by building renovations or demolition, and then it should be removed only by qualified workers.
The agency is considering whether to extend the recommendations to cover other public buildings and commercial structures.
The paper, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, "implies that the EPA has done a good job and a responsible job and continues to do so in this area," said Dr. William C. Scott, vice president of medical affairs at the University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson. He is the chairman of the AMA council.
The position "is quite consistent with EPA's efforts at allaying public misunderstanding and discouraging unnecessary asbestos removals," said Joseph Carra, deputy director of the agency's office of toxic substances.
Two years ago, the EPA imposed a ban, which is to take effect over seven years, on the manufacture, use and export of most asbestos products.
The journal article embodies a policy that was adopted by the group's house of delegates last December but that is being made public only now, after a scientific review.
Asbestos, an almost indestructible mineral, "will never be entirely eliminated from the environment," the AMA panel said. Rather than wholesale removal, the panel calls for "improved procedures" to manage proper use and containment and, where necessary, disposal.
"In other words," the article says, "it is better that society use its limited financial resources in learning how to live safely" with asbestos "than in attempting to remove it totally from the environment."