NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Despite Billions Spent On Cleanup, Asbestos Threat Negligible

February 11, 1999

USA Today says that its own investigation has found "incontrovertible scientific evidence that asbestos in buildings creates a cancer risk so minimal that it barely can be measured." Yet asbestos removal has been the biggest environmental cleanup project in U.S. history.

The newspaper says the risks from asbestos were over-estimated two decades ago and new scientific evidence has never changed the public perception that asbestos in any form is deadly.

  • Asbestos abatement -- which removes or seals the fire resistant fibers in place -- has cost an estimated $50 billion over the past 20 years, and costs continue to mount at the rate of $3 billion a year.
  • While mining and manufacturing asbestos in the developing world produces cancer risks, the amount spent on asbestos removal in the U.S. "makes no sense from a public health standpoint," according to Michael Thune, chief epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society.
  • He says that the risk of getting cancer for asbestos in buildings that eliminating it wouldn't cause a measurable blip in the 171,000 lung cancer deaths that occur every year.
  • For each life saved, asbestos removal costs $100 million to $500 million.

In court cases in the 1970s and the 1980s, plaintiffs' lawyers went after asbestos companies. So far, 40,000 lawsuits have been resolved -- but another 200,000 are pending. The lawsuits forced Johns-Manville Corp. to seek bankruptcy protection in 1982 and turn over 80 percent of its stock to workers exposed to asbestos. Since then, the company has emerged from bankruptcy but public hysteria has not given way to rational evaluation.

Source: Dennis Cauchon, "When Removing Asbestos Makes No Sense," USA Today, February 11, 1999.


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