Expert Says Workers Could Be Exposed to Asbestos in Greensburg Clean-up

May 30, 2007

A Kansas asbestos expert says he is so sure that residents and volunteers who are wading through what’s left of Greensburg, Kan., are being exposed to the carcinogen that he’s willing to wager his reputation on it.

“I don’t like to assume anything … but it’s more likely yes than not” that there is asbestos in the debris, said Leland Sumptur, a Lenexa, Kan., asbestos abatement manager who teaches and has consulted nationally. “I would almost stake my job on it.”

But federal environmental officials say if there is asbestos in the nearly 1,000 private residences that were destroyed in a May 4 tornado, there’s really nothing they can do about it if air samples don’t indicate a problem.

Government regulators acknowledge that the housing debris could be contaminated with asbestos, but they haven’t seen any proof.

Many of the homes in Greensburg were built before 1980, when construction materials frequently contained asbestos, which is dangerous when inhaled or ingested. Some experts say because of the danger, the government should be doing more to protect the health of those helping in the cleanup effort.

“It’s a shame, because people are out there and most likely getting contaminated,” Sumptur told The Kansas City Star.

Becky Ingrum Dolph, an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency, said regulators don’t have the authority under federal and state regulations to require asbestos be removed from single-family homes.

She said the government has done everything it legally can to protect residents and volunteers.

Two weeks after the tornado destroyed 961 homes, caused major damage to 105 more and minor damage to 67 others, the EPA took eight air samples in and around Greensburg to see if asbestos fibers were in the air. The samples came up negative.

If the tests had been positive, that would have meant there was imminent danger to human health and the EPA would have been allowed to take action, Dolph said.

Without the positive samples, she said, “Legally, we don’t have any authority to require the individual homeowner to do anything.”

But air samples alone aren’t good enough, experts said.

“For someone to suggest they did air sampling and they didn’t find anything, that is so wrong to do that,” said Celeste Monforton, a public health policy researcher and lecturer at George Washington University. “It gives some people a false sense of security.”

As chief of the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s health division, Monforton has been involved in cases dealing with asbestos and miners.

“Really the risk is going to be to the people rummaging through the debris and what they are breathing there,” Monforton said. “For someone walking down the street it might not be such a problem.”

But EPA officials said suspicion of contamination is not enough to warrant testing the debris.

Days after the tornado, licensed asbestos workers tested commercial buildings and schools and determined that four, including the high school, contained asbestos. Those buildings have been cordoned off and posters have been taped to them warning of the danger.

Two weeks ago, the Kiowa County Health Department issued a hazardous warning saying dust in Greensburg could contain asbestos. It warned people to wear protective clothing, boots, long pants and gloves, and it began issuing dust masks.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment warned that residents should be careful when removing debris, and it encouraged homeowners who think there is asbestos in their residences to consider using a private contractor to clean it up.

Kiowa County’s health director, Mitzi Hesser, said EPA’s air testing should be sufficient in determining the degree of risk in the city.

“There might be asbestos, but at this time, that is all we can do,” Hesser said. “I feel very comfortable that EPA and KDHE have been doing all that they can do. It is not a normal situation.”

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