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Friday, November 29, 2019

Efforts to Protect the Public From Asbestos Exposure

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey today released a new report highlighting her office’s ongoing efforts to protect children, families, and workers from the health risks posed by exposure to asbestos.

The report highlights the work of AG Healey’s “Healthy Buildings, Healthy Air Initiative” that was created three years ago and focuses on combatting the harms associated with asbestos by partnering with state agencies to educate the public about asbestos safety, taking action against landlords, contractors, and property owners who break the law, and advocating for stronger protections at the federal level.

“Massachusetts has been a leader in protecting its residents and the environment from the harms of asbestos, and our office is working every day to keep people safe,” AG Healey said. “Our Healthy Buildings, Healthy Air Initiative is achieving real benefits for workers, residents, school communities and families, and I thank all of our partners for standing with us to build on the success of our first three years.”

Since creating the Initiative, the AG’s Office has worked with other agencies to develop an online database mapping the presence of asbestos in schools and has secured more than $3.4 million in penalties for violations of the state law governing the proper handling of the dangerous chemical. 

Asbestos, a known carcinogen, is responsible for the deaths of 12,000 to 15,000 people nationwide each year and is used in a wide variety of building materials from roofing and flooring, to siding and wallboard, to caulking and insulation. While some uses of asbestos have been limited by legislation or standard practices over the last 50 years, materials containing the fiber can still be found in many older buildings, particularly homes, schools and workplaces.

If asbestos is not handled or maintained properly, fibers can be released into the air and inhaled, potentially resulting in life threatening illnesses, including lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma. Both mesothelioma and asbestosis are serious diseases of which there is no known cure and there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.

Today’s report focuses on a number of actions by the AG’s Office to protect the public from the risks of asbestos and illegal asbestos work:

Enforcement of Asbestos Safety Laws

AG Healey’s Environmental Protection Division has prioritized its efforts to enforce the state’s clean air law that governs proper management and disposal of the fiber during building construction and demolition projects.

In conjunction with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) and the state Department of Labor Standards (DLS), the AG’s Office has resolved cases of illegal asbestos work against 35 defendants including violations at schools, community centers, publicly-supported housing, nursing homes, and in lower-income, non-English speaking, environmental justice neighborhoods. These cases have resulted in court orders requiring proper asbestos abatement, license forfeiture by unqualified contractors, additional training requirements for workers, property audits, and public education.

The AG’s enforcement cases under the Initiative include allegations of illegal asbestos work during construction or demolition work at two multi-family homes in Worcester, the Greater Lowell Technical High School in Tyngsborough, a Town Fair Tire store in Springfield, the Quincy YMCA, a Salem public housing facility, and four different residential properties in New Bedford, among other locations.

“MassDEP is committed to enforcing the laws designed to protect public health,” said MassDEP Commissioner Martin Suuberg. “We continue to work closely with DLS and the regulated community to ensure that property owners and contractors know the rules, risks and penalties associated with breaking those rules, before they undertake jobs involving asbestos removal and disposal. As the results of this Asbestos Initiative show, it is more protective of public health, and more cost-effective, to do the job right the first time.”

Asbestos Safety in Schools

Asbestos remains prevalent in many public and private schools, in large part because of the cost of abatement and the limits of school budgets. The Asbestos Hazard and Emergency Response Act, a federal law enacted in 1986, requires schools to identify and address asbestos hazards. As part of the initiative, AG Healey’s Office partnered with DLS, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the Massachusetts School Building Authority, the Massachusetts Facilities Administrators Association, and the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials to create the first publicly accessible online inventory of asbestos in the state’s schools.

“The Department of Labor Standards appreciates the collaboration with the Attorney General’s Office on efforts to raise awareness of asbestos in schools,” said DLS Interim Director Michael Flanagan.“They have been an invaluable partner in our Asbestos in Schools website, which includes an interactive map that allows users to look at schools to determine the presence of asbestos and ensures compliance with safety standards."

“Attorney General Healey’s Initiative has made schools safer for children and staff, and we appreciate the opportunity to partner with her for the benefit of schools across the Commonwealth” said Thomas Scott, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

The AG’s Office is continuing its efforts to educate the public about the importance of asbestos safety through a targeted website and by distributing information at community outreach events across the state. 

Advocating for Federal Protections

AG Healey is leading multistate efforts to ensure the federal government carries out its obligation to regulate asbestos safely and effectively. She played a key role in securing the passage of much needed reforms to the federal law governing the use and management of dangerous chemicals including asbestos, known as the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

AG Healey is currently spearheading a coalition of states to ensure that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) properly evaluates asbestos under TSCA’s new rules. As part of this effort, AG Healey led a multistate lawsuit against EPA in June for failing to require the chemical industry to provide the agency with the information it needs to regulate asbestos and protect the public from serious health risks. Most recently, AG Healey led a coalition of states in calling on Congress to pass legislation banning the distribution, manufacturing, importation, and processing of asbestos in the United States. The chemical has been banned by more than 50 countries worldwide.

For more information on asbestos and asbestos-related work, visit MassDEP’s website outlining asbestos construction and demolition notification requirements, DLS’s website reviewing asbestos regulations in the workplace, and the Healthy Buildings, Healthy Air website.

Today’s report is a project of AG Healey’s Environmental Protection Division, with overall leadership by Assistant Attorney General Louis Dundin, leadership on federal advocacy from Assistant Attorney General I. Andrew Goldberg, major contributions from attorneys and support staff across the Division, and significant assistance from the Bureau of Air and Waste and the Environmental Strike Force at MassDEP and DLS’s asbestos program.

Jon L. Gelman of Wayne NJ is the author of NJ Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thomson-Reuters) and co-author of the national treatise, Modern Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thomson-Reuters). For over 4 decades the Law Offices of Jon L Gelman has been representing injured workers and their families who have suffered occupational accidents and illnesses.