School officials decry asbestos rules

December 26, 2007|By Kenneth R. Fletcher | Kenneth R. Fletcher,Capital News Service

Maryland schools officials say they could be forced to test every new tile, pipe or wall put into school buildings for asbestos, under new guidance on Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

State schools have relied in the past on material safety data sheets from manufacturers to determine whether hazardous materials, including asbestos, are in the products they are buying.

But the EPA said it never accepted the data sheets under asbestos regulations. After the Maryland Department of the Environment asked the EPA a "clarifying question," Maryland schools were notified in September 2006 that the manufacturer's sheets could not be used to determine whether products contain asbestos, said EPA spokeswoman Donna Heron.

Schools say that requiring them, instead of the manufacturer, to determine whether a product contains asbestos is an unfair burden.

"The EPA doesn't go after the manufacturer," said Ray Prokop, director of facilities for Carroll County public schools. "The schools are the ones paying the fines and required to do the policing.

"Just imagine: Everything that goes into our schools we have to test and somehow verify," Prokop said.

The EPA said schools could test all the materials they use, but they do not have to. If schools do not test all new building materials for asbestos, they either need a manufacturer's letter certifying the product is asbestos-free or they must assume that the materials contain the dangerous fiber.

"The practical reality of it is that if they assume that it contains asbestos, all they are really required to do is to note that in their management plan," Heron said.

People might be surprised to learn that some new building materials may still contain asbestos, said Mardel Knight, head of Maryland's asbestos inspection unit, but the material has not been banned.

"You can still buy stuff that may or may not be labeled," Knight said. "A lot of stuff from Southeast Asia is not labeled."

But schools officials say it is not as simple as just labeling everything in their management plans as possibly containing asbestos. They say untested materials noted in asbestos management plans are unlikely to contain the carcinogen, but would vastly complicate repairs and renovations.

"If you assume there is asbestos, the smallest repair you make you have to either abate asbestos, which might not be there, or you might have to set up very involved protection," said David Lever, director of Maryland's public school construction program.

"The new structure, which does not allow for [material safety data sheets], has huge consequences on school systems and buildings," Lever said.

Knight said that officials had assumed that a ban on asbestos-containing materials would soon follow 1986 legislation that required schools to track and manage asbestos products in their buildings. That ban never materialized, and the burden fell on schools to prove a material asbestos-free.

"They [schools] could go back and test everything, but they wouldn't be in business," Knight said. "They are not going to be able to do it."

She said that schools are working with the state to determine a reasonable way to deal with the regulations.

Knight said she does not expect that schools will have to go back and test everything that was installed in the past, but they might have to test all new materials for asbestos or assume that they do contain the cancer-causing fiber.

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