METHUEN, Mass. — Jack Fleming earns his living in strange, hostile surroundings.
Dressed in rubbery coveralls, he breathes air piped into a face mask from a filter system strapped to his waist. The fan's hum competes with the constant whine of huge air filters in the plastic-covered room. Everything is damp from vaporizers and water hoses soaking down the ceilings and walls.
Fleming is in the asbestos abatement business. His job is to scrape away asbestos coating the steel beams deep in the bodies of office buildings, the boilers and steam pipes in schools and even the basements of homes.
"People hear what I do and they get scared," said the 23-year-old laborer. "It doesn't bother me. I'm more protected than any other person who may be in contact with asbestos."
Asbestos abatement is a growth industry. Millions of tons of asbestos were used in construction for more than four decades. Now, because of its health hazards, every time a building is renovated, remodeled or demolished, workers like Fleming go in and take the asbestos out.
But in many cases, hazards created by the work are greater than when the asbestos was tucked behind walls and ceilings. "Rip and skip" contractors often leave behind higher asbestos air levels, damaged buildings and huge bills.
A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency survey of regional asbestos coordinators two years ago found that only one in four asbestos contractors was considered competent to remove the material.
Some fault federal and state regulators for pushing asbestos removal without regulating contractors or establishing clear-cut guidelines for when asbestos must go and when it can stay.
"It's asbestos anarchy," said Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.) sponsor of legislation to establish national standards for removing asbestos from schools. "We're seeing actions taken to reduce a risk that have actually increased the danger."
Much of the attention given to removal goes toward the estimated 31,000 schools containing asbestos. The EPA requires school officials to look for asbestos and tell staff and parents if they find it. But the agency does not require that the asbestos be removed.
"The regulation says you are required to inspect the schools, but it doesn't tell you what to look for or how to remedy it," said Florio.
School administrators say that notifying parents in effect forces them to remove the asbestos, whether it is necessary or not.
"The parents don't want to hear that it is safe where it is. They just want it out," said Donald Fusco, an assistant superintendent in Fair Lawn, N.J., which spent $2.3 million to remove asbestos from 10 schools.
Asbestos problems go beyond the schools. Landlords, employers and building superintendents, fearful of lawsuits, often decide to remove old asbestos but hire contractors with little experience.
"You'll run into people who say, 'I'm going to hire me some laborers and take it out,"' said Stewart Huey, executive director of the National Asbestos Council, a Decatur, Ga.-based coalition of contractors, building owners and consultants who advise on asbestos abatement. Huey said he had seen high school students in bathing suits scraping asbestos out of walls. "It really scares us," he said.
At the other end of the spectrum are contractors like Anthony Mesiti, president of National Surface Cleaning Inc., one of the East Coast's largest asbestos removal companies.
Mesiti estimated he had spent $2 million for equipment and training for asbestos work.
"There is a lot of work out there," he said. "The businesses just want it out of their buildings as a health measure."
Mesiti said that if done right, most of the work takes place before the asbestos is touched. Windows and doors are sealed. Thick plastic sheets are taped to floors and walls. Air locks are built to keep stray asbestos in the area. Portable showers are installed at the work site. The whole area is surrounded in a cocoon of polyethylene.
Once the work begins, huge vacuums filter the air. Large vaporizer-type machines spray a constant mist to knock the asbestos from the air. Workers use hoses to soak down the area where asbestos is to be removed. Air levels of asbestos are constantly monitored.
Workers are not permitted to eat, drink or smoke on the job. They must dispose of their coveralls and shower each time they leave the work area.
When the work is completed, the plastic sheeting is disposed of. The work area is scrubbed down and final air readings are taken.
'Do It Again'
"They pray a lot over the readings," said Huey. "If you can't get a clean reading, that means they have to go in and do it all over again."
Asbestos abatement costs $10 to $30 per square foot, 25% of which covers insurance bills. Mesiti pays his workers $14.70 an hour, but fringe benefits like medical insurance and workmen's compensation can double that amount.
"A lot of contractors (who) have been trying to get into the business are now being squeezed out by the insurance costs," said Mesiti.