On the EPA, asbestos, and the World Trade Center

by Wm. Robert Johnston
November 2001

When construction of the World Trade Center began, its design called for an insulating coating on the steel support beams. The coating's purpose was to delay heating of the beams in case of a fire, providing an estimated four hours for evacuation and fire fighting before the beams weakened to the point of structural collapse.

This insulating coating contained asbestos. Following the EPA's lead, New York City outlawed asbestos while the Trade Center was still under construction. As a result, the coating was not used on the upper floors of the towers. An asbestos-free substitute was used, one which was inadequate according to some designers.

Engineers were surprised when the towers collapsed so soon after terrorists crashed planes into both. It may be that the collapses would have been delayed further were it not for the ban on asbestos. Any delay, of course, would have saved even more lives.

This is doubly unfortunate because it is a consequence of an illogical fear of asbestos. European countries distinguish between different mineral forms of asbestos and regulate according to hazard level.

In contrast, U.S. regulators have thrown scientific data out tthe window and banned all mineral forms as if they were all the most hazardous--even though most building asbestos in the U.S. is a type not strongly linked to health problems.

Driving a car on the streets of Brownsville is about 500 times more dangerous than exposure to asbestos at levels ten times the EPA limit. So why do we ban uses of asbestos that could save lives?

This is characteristic of the EPA: backed by environmentalists and trial lawyers, they often ignore research data and show no sense of proportion in trading one risk against another.

Similarly, four firefighters were killed in a Washington state forest fire in July when use of water from a stream was delayed due to the presence of an "endangered species." Environmentalists claim the Endangered Species Act was not to blame, but the investigation has shown that Forest Service decision making was hindered by deference to the ESA.

This bureaucratic tunnel vision most of the time only wastes billions of dollars. But it is increasingly clear that disproportionate regulation--at federal, state, and even local levels--sometimes costs human lives in exchange for imaginary benefits.

© 2001, 2003 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 8 March 2003.
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