Asbestos Regulations

Asbestos Protection Ordinance: Background Information

Passed unanimously by Cambridge City Council
– an ordinance, based on this proposal, on Nov. 1, 1999.

This document lists the background information which led to the Proposed 1999 “Protection from Asbestos” Ordinance which was submitted to Cambridge City Council by Councilor Katherine Triantafillou.

At the site owned by W. R. Grace and Co. (Grace) in North Cambridge, adjacent to the Alewife T Station, Russell Field, and the Alewife Brook Reservation, testing of the soil of this chemical plant revealed contamination requiring cleanup under Massachusetts Law. Neighbors pushed for more testing, particularly for asbestos, and although Grace denied that any should be found, preliminary tests found high concentrations on the site. Since significant levels of asbestos were found, Grace was required to address this issue under state law, under the regulations of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Neighbors then pushed for more extensive testing throughout the site, while Grace maintained that there was no reason to expect asbestos, although some neighbors found documents in the public record indicating that large amounts may have been transported to the site. Grace has been a leader in asbestos products.

In October, 1998, a public meeting was held to discuss further testing. Comments were addressed in the final asbestos sampling plan, which was submitted and performed without further public comment.

Further testing revealed various levels of asbestos contamination throughout the site, in areas which are planned for the development of office buildings, a hotel, retail stores, and associated parking. Based on the test results, one engineering analysis concluded that an estimated 600,000 pounds of asbestos may be present in the soil. The test data, plans for remaining tests and a proposal for how asbestos would be managed and monitored were presented in June, 1999.

During the public meetings, and in submitted documents which were not planned for the discussion, it was revealed that a large underground oil storage tank was removed from an area that contained asbestos in reportable amounts. (“Reportable” means significant enough to require the involvement of the DEP.) Nothing was done to protect the community (or apparently the workers) from possible exposure. Furthermore, the report on the removal falsely indicates that reportable asbestos was not found.

Neighbors found out that there was little they could do to assure what they felt was reasonable protection for themselves and the community from possible asbestos exposure. The risk of exposure is of particular concern because the development activities will occur next to the football, soccer, and baseball fields designated by the city for children’s leagues.

Asbestos is a particular danger, different from many other contaminants, because:

  1. Asbestos does not degrade in the environment. If inadvertently carried offsite, it may remain there as a threat for later exposure.
  2. Once lodged in the body, asbestos fibers remain as a carcinogenic irritant without being cleared, and adding to the cumulative lifetime exposure. The effects last long after the incident which caused exposure has ended.
  3. Asbestos has been repeatedly and irrefutably proven to cause cancer (in humans). The form of cancer named mesothelioma is painful and causes death within a few months, with no known cure.
  4. No level of exposure has been shown to be safe, despite numerous studies.
  5. Children are particularly vulnerable, particularly to mesothelioma (form of cancer), as indicated in the AAP Policy Statement: “… calculated risk escalates rapidly when time since first exposure exceeds about 40 years. Early childhood exposure, even at very low levels, thus becomes a significant factor…”

As such, there are very strict laws concerning the removal and disturbance of asbestos products in buildings. In general, if asbestos is not in a form that is a current health risk, it is often advised to leave it undisturbed rather than creating a potentially very serious risk.

However, if asbestos containing material must be disturbed, there are also quantified limits placed on the escape of asbestos, but these pertain only after strict, regulated precautions have been carried out (such as wetting down contaminated material inside sealed rooms with HEPA-filtered venting, as per 453 CMR 6.00). If these limits are exceeded, work must be stopped immediately to prevent a catastrophic release, because the exceedance indicates the filtration is no longer effective. Therefore, this quantified level should not be taken to be an acceptable exposure, but rather the indicator of impending disaster. Also, all personnel involved in the remediation of asbestos must be trained in proper handling, and the training is well specified in the regulations.

From discussions with people about asbestos, it seems that many have misinterpreted the recommendations from the asbestos-in-schools issue. Many people remember there was a large cry about the dangers of asbestos in schools, which resulted in the initiation of removal processes throughout the country. There is also the memory that the widespread removal efforts were suddenly halted as being “over-reactionary.” What people tend not to understand is that asbestos is a threat primarily when fibers become airborne, as occurs when damaged materials that contain asbestos are disturbed, but when intact material is not disturbed, it is generally not considered to be an immediate threat.

What happened in schools was that intact material, such as pipe insulation, was being removed just because it contained asbestos. The removal process was allowing asbestos fibers to be liberated from formerly non-threatening occurrences in building materials, thereby creating a potential hazard, particularly if not properly handled. Therefore, it was recommended that asbestos not be disturbed unless there was more of a health threat by not removing it. However, whenever asbestos-containing material is handled in a way that may release fibers, the same strict containment procedures still apply.

Although the handling of contaminated sites falls under the jurisdiction of the DEP, the oversight of most sites is handled by a private consultant hired by the owner of the contaminated property. This “Licensed Site Professional” acts on behalf of the DEP, and has the final say on what will be done on each site, unless the DEP chooses to make an exception, such as in the case of a routine audit. Jack Miano of the DEP stated at the public meeting on June 17, 1999:

“The folks in the neighborhood, you need to be your own watchdog, too. You need to continue to do that. If it was up to me, and if I had the authority, I would — I would be there on site to watch every scoopful of dirt. But that’s not going to happen because I have bunches of other sites to work on at the same time, and very rarely, if ever, do I get out to the field because we just don’t have the resources.

So, sad to say, while these activities are going on, probably you aren’t going to have anyone from DEP out there watching those earth-moving pieces of equipment. Somebody should be doing that.”

At the meetings, and a later meeting of the Cambridge City Council’s Environment Committee, the community and public officers found little they could do to require a property owner to take what was felt to be satisfactory protective measures to prevent exposure to asbestos in soil during disruptive activities such as construction.

Consequently, Councilor Triantafillou submitted a proposed city ordinance to offer enforceable regulations. As Sam Lipson, Director of Environmental Health for the City of Cambridge, stated at the ordinance hearing,

“I agree with the goal here of trying to give further protection to people living in the cities where it is felt that it is not sufficiently covered by the state law. My personal view is there are gaps in the state law; there are gaps in what is actually required. When you rely on guidelines rather than on actual regulation, it is possible to get around this. Those guidelines aren’t binding, and I think that that’s inappropriate.”

The proposed ordinance defines asbestos contaminated soil, and disruptive activities that would be covered by the ordinance. As community protection, the property owner would be required to either:

1/ place a structure (e.g. a tent) over the area where contaminated soil will be disrupted while the activities take place; or

2/ cover the area with clean fill so that the contaminated soil will not be disturbed during construction activities.

These provisions match the regulation of asbestos containing materials in buildings.

Contact the Alewife Study Group, North Cambridge Massachusetts, by email at