Many of us knew back then what catastrophe now causes the EPA to fess up about asbestos

"The asbestos threat appears to be overrated, and the billions spent on removal projects wasted." So I wrote in this space way back in April 1990, inspired by a report in the January 1990 edition of Science magazine concluding the health hazard presented by casual exposure to asbestos building products was miniscule to nonexistent. Various public policy commentators made the same case, but common sense was drowned out by the combined forces of junk science, bureaucratic inertia and news media blather.

Asbestos became the bogeyman of the hour -- make that of approximately two decades. The average American believes it to be one of the most poisonous substances known to man because the EPA told them so, and commanded public and private building owners to spend billions upon billions of dollars trying to remove every last speck of the evil fluff from indoor environments.

Countless school districts that didn't have enough funds to pay decent teacher salaries or fix the plumbing nonetheless were mandated to award megabucks asbestos contracts. Often these went to dubious contractors and resulted in more asbestos particles released into the surrounding environment than were present before the workers started messing with the stuff. Dozens of reputable, otherwise profitable companies had to declare bankruptcy due to the cost of asbestos litigation and settlements.

This, even though reputable scientists distinguish between two types of asbestos, with the one common to most building products deemed virtually harmless. This, even though the undeniable link between asbestos and lung diseases showed up almost entirely among people who worked in asbestos mining or manufacturing, and thus inhaled copious fibers day after day. This, even though nobody could pinpoint anyone getting sick from casual exposure.

A Fateful Reckoning

It so happens the World Trade Center contained a significant amount of asbestos. I recall watching TV that terrible day and hearing a reporter ask Mayor Giuliani whether the dust cloud from the WTC collapse presented a serious health hazard due to asbestos.

The level-headed mayor was taken aback at the surrealism of the query under the circumstances, but answered with a definitive no, even though he had no way of knowing for sure. Air samples taken in the aftermath occasionally turned up levels of asbestos exceeding EPA standards, and the NYC media pursued this issue in the days and weeks that followed.

The EPA's response was both comforting and outrageous. Our environmental watchdog agency reassured everyone that asbestos was harmful only if inhaled at high doses over a long period of time. They said not to worry about levels that exceeded its "stringent standard based on long-term exposure."

It was exactly the argument made by all those companies facing gazillion-dollar liabilities for inadvertently exposing people to casual contact with miniscule amounts of asbestos. It was the same argument ventured by everyone who saw asbestos hysteria for what it was.

In fact, even the EPA issued an internal report in 1992 admitting the agency may have overstated the danger. Nothing ever came of it, though. Only now, after terrorists rendered the asbestos hazard absurd, does the EPA dare to speak the truth aloud.

The EPA's admission was low-keyed and not given the attention it deserves by a news media now thoroughly engaged in exaggerating the threat of anthrax to the general public. The Oct. 19 The Wall Street Journal ran an article titled, "The EPA Comes Clean on Asbestos." I have seen no other press devoted to the EPA's remarkable about-face.

It's something to keep in mind, however, when evaluating all the other environmental bogeymen whose dire threats have resulted in no identifiable casualties.

For some reason, the phrase "toxic mold" comes to mind.