Asbestos abatement has cost an estimated $50 billion and counting, all to remove a threat that doesn't exist.

The local TV newscast was unbearable to watch for anyone with half a mind. The clip showed some elementary school pupils - third graders as best I recall - picking up trash on a beach at the behest of their teacher. She had taken the children on a consciousness-raising field trip to indoctrinate them in the evils of pollution and their duty as good citizens to clean up the environment.

If you're a stodgy traditionalist like me, you may vaguely recall third grade as a time for indoctrination in the three R's - which disturbing numbers of today's youngsters are out of touch with - but that just goes to show how twisted the priorities of our bygone era were.

Had the TV producer been on the ball, he would have cued the "Jaws" theme to introduce the next shot. Lacking such flair, he merely let the camera pan to some yucky-looking blob that had washed ashore. It was left to the pretty TV reporter to lend drama to the situation with a breathless announcement that right there, on our community's own beaches, threatening our children, was, gasp, ASBESTOS!

Nobody could say exactly where it came from, but, by golly, the heroic schoolteacher somehow recognized what it was and scrambled her students out of the way as if it were a lit stick of dynamite. The newsbabe looked scared and slightly nauseated as she signed off with the soothing information that public health authorities were on their way to safely dispose of the evil blob.

This otherwise unremarkable incident speaks volumes about a scandalous waste of megabucks that makes those $600 military toilet seats look like bargains in comparison.

A Little History

Asbestos can indeed be nasty stuff. Asbestos-related cancers have claimed almost 200,000 victims among people who spent years breathing copious amounts of the fibers while mining raw asbestos or fabricating products out of it. Those folks deserve compassion and compensation.

It's just that, as usual, once the deleterious health effects of massive exposure became known, the ambulance chasers and "Chicken Little" alliances put a spin on things that ran roughshod over science. Casual exposure became equated with the heaping lungsful inhaled day after day by asbestos workers.

Next thing you know, OSHA and the EPA go ballistic - getting laws passed that mandated the removal of virtually every last fiber from our public buildings. An abatement/removal industry arose almost overnight in the 1980s, with hucksters outnumbering the trained and certified practitioners.

You contractors have paid a price ever since confronting numerous "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situations in the field where you had to either stop working or risk megabuck-litigations upon discovering asbestos pipe or boiler insulation.

It was known from the start that asbestos was harmless when compacted into various useful products; only when floating around as microscopic particles was it any cause for concern. Yet there we were, paying billions of dollars to a bunch of fly-by-nighters to take asbestos out of its compacted state and render it into dust.

Studies showed that many removal projects resulted in more asbestos fibers floating around than before the project began. No matter. Before or after, we're talking about barely detectable quantities.

Thanks to developments in chemical spectroscopy, today's scientists are able to detect less than one part per billion of chemicals and minerals in a given medium. In bygone times what we didn't know didn't hurt us. Now, ultra-sophisticated detection equipment enables the news media to frighten people out of their skulls with stuff that for all practical purposes is not there!

Studious Ignorance

In 1991, the American Medical Association reviewed all the studies done on the health hazards of asbestos and concluded that the risk was grotesquely exaggerated. They found that exposure to a few airborne fibers given off by asbestos building materials had no detectable impact on human health. One study suggested, wispily, that one life could be saved for every $100 million to $500 million spent on asbestos removal.

In response, Congress mandated the EPA to finance a comprehensive report of its own on the risk of asbestos in buildings. Performed by the Health Effects Institute, this study found that a person was 10 times at risk of catching cancer from asbestos fibers floating around outdoors in urban areas as they were from indoor asbestos. Case closed, right? Time to stop throwing good money after bad.

Ah, but it's virtually impossible to stop the government locomotive once it gets rolling. For a federal bureaucracy to admit error and rescind a foolish decision would be as startling as President Clinton turning celibate.

Thus, the bill for asbestos abatement over the past two decades has run to some $50 billion and counting, according to a USA Today estimate. About $6 billion has been spent to get rid of asbestos in school buildings - the same aging schools that are in dire need of unaffordable basic repairs and renovations. Consider also the economic hardships imposed when spurious asbestos lawsuits sent Johns-Manville and other reputable building materials producers into bankruptcy.

And how about all those renovation jobs and real estate transactions held up amid mounting legal fees? All that money wasted, and all those hassles, owing to a phantom threat to human health. Yet, hardly anybody has gotten their dander up about this.

Secular Religion

It's because asbestos removal is a sacred article of faith. Nobody can be against a clean environment. Thus, anything done with good intentions to promote a safe and healthy environment is immune from criticism from those who would not for a second hesitate to lambaste the military or any unpopular government agency that managed to squander some $50 billion of public and private funds.

Well I would like to remind everyone where a road paved with good intentions can lead. Let's remain faithful to environmental science, not what has become the secular religion of environmentalism.

This religion has gotten much of its impetus from the news media. Few journalists can distinguish junk science from that which deserves attention. This is especially true of those who work in TV and thus get hired more for looks than investigative skills, and whose misinformation reaches the largest audience.

Asbestos is only one example. Hardly a month goes by when we don't hear the media bleat warnings of a new dire threat to human health from some common substance based on oh-so-preliminary lab studies. Recently they sounded false alarms over plastic wrap. In our industry, we have seen the environmental high priests freak out over inconsequential amounts of lead in faucets.

A recently published book, "Environmental Cancer - A Political Disease?" (S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman, Yale University Press), points out that 85 percent of reporters surveyed believe we face a "cancer epidemic," even though the National Cancer Institute finds overall cancer rates have been dropping steadily since 1992. Amazingly, the media were found to be even more gullible than environmental activists, of whom about two-thirds believe cancer to be an epidemic.

It's not only money that's been wasted chasing away asbestos and so many other chemical bogeymen. Even worse has been the erosion of intellectual vigor in our public discourse. Eco-cultists have convinced too many teachers that trash pickups equate with education, and naive journalists that we are threatened from every direction by molecular mayhem.

All the asbestos in the world is not as much threat to our well being as the accumulation of such drivel.