Magazine article Insight on the News

False Alarms over Asbestos Rack Up Costs

Magazine article Insight on the News

False Alarms over Asbestos Rack Up Costs

Article excerpt

San Francisco radio shows went into panic mode in early December over a report that bags of construction debris containing asbestos had fallen off a truck on the Bay Bridge, which connects the city with Oakland.

The asbestos spill happened at 6:40 a.m., just as rush hour was starting, and health authorities immediately closed the bridge, sending thousands of commuters scurrying for alternate routes. The San Francisco Chronicle called the resulting mess the "worst traffic snarl in years." Consumer activists warned residents to shut their windows and take showers if they felt that any of the asbestos might have blown off the bridge and contaminated them.

But was this asbestos panic really necessary? During the day, a radio talk show reporter called one of the federal government's leading experts on asbestos. "What should we do?" she asked excitedly. The expert replied: "Bring out the fire hoses and wash the mess into the bay and go about your business. This asbestos spill is about as dangerous as sunshine. It isn't going to hurt anyone."

His answer startled her. "But that would cause cancer!" she responded.

The expert started to laugh, explaining that the rock formations at the bottom of San Francisco Bay have already put far more asbestos into its waters than could come from the small amount of spilled construction debris. The danger, he said, was so small it was almost nonexistent. He added that San Francisco residents faced far more danger trying to commute on unfamiliar roads than they would from the asbestos spill.

Because of a technical glitch, the asbestos expert never got on the air, and some lanes on the bridge were closed until after midnight.

What a great example of how the media don't do their job. The fact is that casual exposure to small amounts of asbestos poses no risk to human health. This has been stated time and again by objective scientists who have studied the subject.

The U.S. Geological Survey's Malcolm Ross, a former president of the Mineralogical Society of America, has been studying asbestos since 1971, when a scare arose over the possible health effects of chrysotile asbestos in dust from a quarry in the Washington suburbs. …

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