Canny Capitol Hill observers expect passage of federal legislation directed at the control or removal of asbestos--the fire-resistant, fibrous material that can cause lung cancer and other diseases if inhaled or ingested.
For many years asbestos has been regarded as an economical, strong and durable material often used for ceiling tiles or pipe insulation in commercial buildings. But now the once-popular asbestos is under attack. The tip-off came late last year when Congress passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, which ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to develop asbestos-abatement regulations for schools.
Additionally, that legislation ordered EPA to study the extent of asbestos contamination in public buildings, ordering a report to Congress no later than Oct. 1, 1987. EPA has estimated that 20% of all public and commercial buildings--not including schools--have asbestos problems or potential problems.
Owners of older office buildings periodically update and modernize their large office and apartment buildings but now they are removing or enclosing asbestos-containing materials. However, there is concern among owners of aged commercial buildings that new regulations might mandate expensive programs with few health benefits.
One fear of building owners is that unwarranted hysteria over the effects of low-level exposure to asbestos might cause some lenders and investors to require expensive refurbishing of existing buildings where asbsestos was used in original construction--often 20 or 30 years ago.
Another fear is that the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act could form the basis for harsh regulations on asbestos testing, removal and inspection. A court decision last year ruled in favor of the Service Employees International Union and ordered EPA to issue regulations, as provided under the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976.
Asbestos was often used as a fire-resistant insulation material in houses and steel-framed buildings built from 1946 through the 1960s. Asbestos also was used as insulation in boiler rooms and around pipes of apartment buildings until new applications were forbidden in the 1970s.
When the material is crumbled by hand, asbestos produces its greatest danger. When particles are inhaled, they lodge in the lungs and contribute to lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. But property owners insist that any health hazard due to exposure to low levels of asbestos is controversial because no one exposure-risk standard is widely accepted. also, asbestos-related diseases usually take a long time to develop.
On the state level, the Virginia General Assembly recently passed four asbestos-related bills. One requires converters of apartments to condominiums to inspect for asbestos and to correct any problems. Another requires documentation that asbestos problems have been corrected before a repair permit is granted if the building was erected before 1978.
Washington real estate consultant Justin Hinders has warned his clients of a "national stampede before long" on asbestos cleanup. For instance, no demolition permit is issued in the District of Columbia until the property owner gets approval for the disposition of any asbestos that might be in the building to be razed.
Already some investors are reported to be wary of buying older office buildings that might contain asbestos. Aetna and Prudential life insurance companies have already announced they would not buy or finance purchases of older buildings containing asbestos.
One Washington environmental-law-specializing attorney summed up the situation thus: "Asbestos legislation is like a locomotive coming down the tracks. By the end of this year it's going to be staring the real estate industry right in the face."