Is asbestos falling through the cracks In Ohio?
A Crack in the Asbestos Detection Process
A subtle change in asbestos sampling and reporting has happened in Ohio and it’s allowing asbestos to “fall through the cracks.” It once was that during a typical survey, the licensed Evaluation Specialist (ES) would inspect areas such as finished drywall walls. This type of wall has mudded and taped joints and is made up of a mixture of layered materials that could include asbestos. The ES would identify the homogenous areas (HAs) in the wall, sample each HA, and analyze each layer for asbestos content.
But Ohio EPA no longer requires this detailed asbestos analysis. And this could allow dangerous asbestos to go undetected.
Why Ohio Regulatory Requirements Changed
In 2018, the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) merged with Ohio EPA to form one governing body for asbestos in Ohio. Before this, the ODH had used a combined regulatory approach (i.e., a mixture of OSHA and EPA regulations). After ODH was absorbed into Ohio EPA, they began following just EPA regulations. It’s the OSHA regulations, however, that require the analysis of layers for asbestos.
The Ohio EPA asbestos program includes what EPA calls “letters of interpretation.” One of these letters of interpretation says that when sampling a wall system, it’s fine to composite the layers. From the EPA website February 11, 2021:
“As stated in the January 5, 1994 Asbestos Sampling Bulletin clarification, joint compound and wallboard form a “wall system,” and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) therefore recommends the use of a composite analysis for this material. See 59 FR 542; see also 60 FR 65243 (1995). For joint compound (not skim coat), EPA recommends that an accredited inspector take a weighted average of the different wall system components to arrive at the final reportable number.”
Once Positive for Asbestos Can Now Be Negative?
When asbestos is found in drywall walls, it’s usually found in the joint compound and not in the wallboard. A sample of a finished layer of drywall will likely have a thin layer of joint compound and a much thicker layer of wallboard. So when compositing the two layers, there will be a much greater amount of wallboard than joint compound. When sampling by layer, analytical might show a quantity of asbestos greater than 1% in the joint compound but non-detect in the wallboard.
Before 2018 the wall system would have been positive for asbestos, but not now. Today a composite will likely yield a result of less than 1% or trace, which is less than EPA’s definition of asbestos-containing (i.e., greater than 1%).
OSHA Objects to Composite Asbestos Testing
Allowing higher levels of asbestos to stay in wall systems was probably not an evil plot on the EPA’s part, but rather an unintended consequence of the merger with ODH. OSHA, though, does not agree with this practice. The following is an excerpt of a letter from Mr. Stephen Mallinger, OSHA Acting Director, to Mr. Gary Thibodeaux of the National Service Cleaning Corporation:
“You ask whether the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) considers sheetrock and joint compound to be a composite material that may be analyzed for asbestos content by collecting composite bulk samples. By interpretation of the definition of asbestos containing material (ACM) presented at 29 CFR 1910.1001(b), [29 CFR 1915.1001], and 29 CFR 1926.1101(b); OSHA regards sheetrock and joint compound as separate materials. Each of these materials that may contain asbestos must be analyzed separately for their asbestos content.”
It’s pretty clear that OSHA expects analysis by layer, not by composite.
What’s the Best Asbestos Testing Practice?
So what should happen now? Follow OSHA, test in layers, and move on. The defense that “the EPA made me do it” is probably not going to work if OSHA shows up asking why wall samples were composited. And how would hazards be properly communicated to an employee charged with removing that drywall? Or, more importantly, what to say to that employee’s lawyer?
Analyze by layer. Letting asbestos fall through the cracks due to a regulatory loophole is plain wrong.
For more information or to chat about this, contact Rick Kuhlman President of HEPA Environmental Services, Inc., firstname.lastname@example.org