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Public health and contamination
Column submitted to Cambridge Chronicle

The Sacrifice of Public Health Protection

At the November 1st City Council meeting, Cambridge will vote on whether it will protect the community from a glaring inconsistency in laws regulating cancer-causing asbestos in contaminated soil. City Councilor Katherine Triantafillou has introduced legislation to close the "gaps in the state law" (as Sam Lipson, Director of Environmental Health in Cambridge, referenced at the ordinance hearing) regarding the handling of asbestos in soil. The handling of asbestos in buildings is very highly regulated

Asbestos is a concern for several reasons.

People seem to remember that schools stopped mass removal of asbestos a number of years ago, but not the reason why. "Mistakes were made initially with asbestos in buildings," Dr. Philip Landrigan, who has served as Senior Advisor to the Environmental Protection Agency, wrote last year in the May 28th New England Journal of Medicine. "With the passage in 1986 of the federal Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), a rational set of legally enforceable controls was put in place. The guiding principle of AHERA is that asbestos in a building is deemed to pose no hazard to health unless fibers become airborne and inhaled. So long as asbestos remains in place and is protected from disturbance, it can safely be left alone."

Proceedings regarding the contaminated W. R. Grace property next to Russell Field and the Alewife T Station, triggered the submission of this ordinance. Grace plans over 400,000 square feet of development on property with over one half-million pounds of asbestos by the more conservative engineering estimate. Neighbors were concerned that construction could release asbestos into the community, and that most would land on the nearest property -- the city sports fields -- and remain there until children from throughout the city kick it up during league baseball, soccer, and football games.

The state has privatized the oversight of most contaminated sites so that private consultants hired by contaminated-property owners oversee the clean-up procedure, and are generally given the final say. Since no specific regulations exist on the handling of asbestos in soil, communities currently have no recourse for insufficient plans.

In light of this, the key points of the asbestos ordinance are simple. If significant amounts of asbestos (1% or more, as defined by the state) are found in the soil of a property, the community must be protected if the soil is to be disturbed. If there was industrial use of asbestos on the property, the soil must be tested determine if it is safe. If asbestos has been found in the soil, measures must be taken to ensure that asbestos will not become airborne in dust when disturbing the soil.

Unfortunately, commercial developers are trying to portray this health ordinance as targeting affordable housing, in an effort to avoid these basic health checks. However, unless affordable housing is targeting contaminated sites, the claim is unfounded. No special measures are called for if a property has always been residential, if the site is clean, or if there is no reason to expect industrial asbestos contamination. Residential use of asbestos, such as in siding, is excluded. Also, the ordinance does not restrict the amount or type of development, it only states how to protect the community from asbestos.

Community members have suggested placing a barrier between the asbestos and the community when work is done, as is done in buildings, such as covering the contaminated soil with clean fill or putting a structure like a tent over the work area. Dr. Landrigan approved of a physical barrier as a reasonable protective measure when I spoke with him about this ordinance.

However, some public officials suggest simply wetting the soil would be sufficient, with no protective barrier in case that fails, but with air monitors to indicate such a failure. This plan increases risk to the community with the prime benefit going to developers in the form of reduced requirements and costs. If the air monitors indicate asbestos has been released, the community has already been contaminated, and there is no way to bring the asbestos back.

It past time for us to take a stand against profit-focused developers and protect our own health and our children's well-being. The Council vote go one of two ways: supporting public health or supporting the interests of developers. If you don't feel your health should be sacrificed for the convenience of commercial development, call your councilors and let them know their vote on Monday will affect your vote on Tuesday. Show up at City Hall on Monday evening to remind them.

Let the city government know where the priorities should be.

Michael Nakagawa
Madison Avenue
Alewife Study Group Subcommittee for Public Health and Contamination Issues

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