Spring is renovation season, and every year, homeowners and contractors nationwide undertake projects ranging from tearing out a closet to rehabbing an entire building. Many of these renovations involve the removal of asbestos, a dangerous substance found in construction materials commonly used through the 1980s in building homes, schools, churches, businesses, and municipal facilities.
Asbestos is frequently found in older ductwork, insulation, wiring, plumbing, cement, linoleum tile, ceiling and wall coverings, exterior siding, and roofing. When materials containing asbestos are disturbed or broken up during renovations, asbestos fibers can become airborne and cause serious threats to human health, including the deadly cancer mesothelioma. To protect the public, state agencies are expected to oversee compliance with federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for handling and disposal of this highly toxic material.
Not every contractor is knowledgeable or ethical when it comes to the strict requirements for removal and disposal of asbestos. Some are tempted to bypass laws protecting public health and safety, whether to cut costs or to avoid spending the time it takes do the job right. To ensure compliance, site visits by trained inspectors and sometimes even surprise drop-in inspections are often necessary.
Iowa: Unrealistic Expectations for Sole Inspector
Iowa is home to as many as 4,500 asbestos removal projects a year, scattered over 55,857 square miles. Verifying that bystanders and residents are protected from toxic dust, and that asbestos waste is properly contained, documented, and placed in approved hazardous-waste landfills as specified by EPA rules, would keep 10 full-time inspectors busy.
Yet, according to a report recently released by InsuranceJournal.com, it all rests on the overburdened shoulders of just 1 inspector for the entire state.
Equally overwhelming is the task faced by Iowa's sole Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) asbestos compliance inspector, charged with ensuring that all workplaces in the state, from construction firms to manufacturing plants to auto body shops, adhere to OSHA guidelines for worker safety in handling asbestos.
Asbestos Inspector Shortage Encourages Deception
Unscrupulous company owners can take advantage of the lack of oversight. Lynn Pickard, statewide director of training of the Iowa Laborers Education and Training Fund, describes scenarios where companies rip and skip at night when nobody is around. The Des Moines Register cites recent cases where workers testified that they were asked to do demolition work on weekends and hide asbestos-laden debris in trash barrels. Faking air quality tests has also been alleged. Such violations of EPA and OSHA regulations risk exposing workers, and the general public, to asbestos.
Iowa is not the only state with an inspector shortage. Budget cuts on the state and federal level put citizens at risk all over the country. There are no budgets with either the state or federal governments to put the kind of inspection staff out there that we really would require to enforce the regulations, said Brent Kynoch of the Environmental Information Association, which focuses on asbestos and other health hazards in buildings. It's safe to say that enforcement of asbestos regulations nationwide is abysmal.
What is happening in your state?