Evolving Asbestos Standards

The concern regarding asbestos and health risk evolved quickly in the early 1980’s and resulted in a blizzard of standards and regulations. The very first federal standard that applied to building owners and operators was proposed by EPA in 1980 and promulgated in 1982. The standard is known as 40 CFR 763, Friable Asbestos-Containing Materials in Schools, and specifically targets schools as the name implies. The standard required public and private educational authorities (K-12) to inspect their buildings for friable ACM, sample the buildings to determine asbestos content, and assess the potential hazard.

The EPA acknowledged that their recognition of the potential asbestos hazard was recent. As stated in the EPA guidance document Asbestos Containing Materials in School Buildings, Part 1 (March 1979), “Until recently exposure to asbestos was generally considered an occupational health hazard for asbestos workers. However, now we have learned of an equally serious exposure problem that can occur in all types of buildings in which certain asbestos-containing materials have been used for fireproofing, insulation and decoration.”

This statement demonstrates the change in risk perception that occurred in the 1970’s regarding asbestos. The explosion of regulations, research papers and standards that followed forever changed the landscape of environmental risk assessment.

The EPA school standard put asbestos on the radar screen of the general public, as the hysteria that followed the inspections attests. Billions of dollars were spent in removing ACM from school buildings. It essentially ended any sale of ACM in the marketplace and spurred the use of many replacement materials such as fiberglass. The standard also raised the consciousness of other building managers, including those at colleges, health care facilities and commercial buildings. By the mid-1980’s, many building owners recognized that certain precautions were necessary when handling ACM. This recognition continues to the present.