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Radon and asbestos a study of agenda setting and causal stories

by Denise Scheberle


Optimistic students of public policy might expect government to respond immediately whenever public health is at risk. However, given the panoply of issues vying for placement on the governmental agenda, governmental response may not be immediate or even guaranteed. This article uses theories advanced by Kingdon (1984) and by Stone (1989) to understand better how environmental issues become formal agenda items. Specifically, this article compares the process by which public concerns about two indoor environmental carcinogens, radon and asbestos, became part of the congressional agenda and eventually resulted in public policies.

Theories of Agenda Setting

Scholars have attempted to explain why some issues capture governmental attention, while others do not. Cobb and Elder (1972) suggest that issues reach the institutional or "formal" agenda by first being part of the larger systemic agenda. They argue that perceived seriousness and duration of the public problems affect the probability of their achieving institutional agenda status.

Kingdon (1984) suggests that policies are the product of the convergence of three distinct process streams that flow through the political system: problem recognition, policy formulation, and politics. Issues reach the formal agenda through any one of these streams, although significant crises or events in the problem stream may quickly direct governmental attention to a policy area.

Crises or focusing events in the problem stream are especially important when policy domains are isolated from frequent public attention. Crises may provide useful triggers for legislative attention to a previously neglected policy area; they also provide "hooks" for sustained media attention. Moreover, the public and members of the political community may not have pre-existing conceptions about the problem, and are more amenable to a full-scale debate.

Kingdon asserts, however, that events within the problem stream are insufficient in themselves to propel policy onto the formal agenda. Also important is the participation of members of the political stream. Their participation is determined by the public mood, by interest group activity, and by the dispositions of new presidential administrations and of Congress to the issue.

The policy stream is most important in generating alternative approaches to emerging issues. Members of the policy community, from bureaucrats to researchers, evaluate alternative solutions, "soften-up" the policy area for governmental debate, and narrow the range of choices for political decisionmakers.

Finally, issues pass through a "policy window," a window of opportunity when the three streams converge and political conditions are favorable. The likelihood of an issue successfully passing through the window increases with the presence of a policy entrepreneur willing to devote personal or organizational resources toward shepherding the issue through the window, and with the existence of viable solutions to the issue defined by the policy community.

While Kingdon focuses on the convergence of actors, problems, and solutions, Stone suggests that causal stories that define public issues are important determinants of the agenda setting process (Stone, 1989). She distinguishes between issues that are the result of natural, unintentional causes and issues that are caused by purposeful human action. The most persuasive causal stories, in terms of their ability to achieve prominent agenda status, are those that describe deliberate attempts by willful governmental or private actors to conceal problems. An appropriate strategy for politicians wishing to advance the issue, therefore, is to create causal stories with culpable parties--pushing the story out of the realm of accident into the realm of human intent and behavior. Thus, it is the strategic portrayal of problems, in addition to the nature of the problem or the array of political actors, that facilitates agenda setting.

This article explores how the political, problem, and policy streams converged to create formal United States policies for radon and asbestos. Using Kingdon's agenda setting model and Stone's notion of causal stories, this paper seeks to answer three questions. First, what factors were most important in putting radon and asbestos onto the public agenda? Second, how did the political environment influence the timing of agenda entrance, as well as the causal stories that prompted congressional response to radon and asbestos? Finally, given that both issues were legitimized through legislation as public policy, what lessons can be gleaned for environmental agenda setting?

Agenda Setting for Radon

Scientists have long associated radon exposure with lung cancer. International and domestic epidemiological studies of underground miners in the 1940s correlated high levels of radon exposure and incidence of lung cancer (National Academy of Sciences, 1988). Beginning in 1963, epidemiological studies of various groups of underground miners produced a consensus within the scientific community that radon was a carcinogen (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 1992b). Although these studies involved occupational exposures, efforts were made to establish connections to environmental exposures as well. Federal officials first associated non-occupational radon exposures with lung cancer in 1979 in an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report that attributed 10% to 20% of the United States' incidence of lung cancer to radon (Guimond, Elliott, Fitzgerald, Windham, & Cumy, 1979). Yet, despite this scholarly recognition of radon as a carcinogen, governmental actors made no formal attempt to establish a comprehensive public policy addressing indoor radon or to warn the public. The issue remained in the scientific community composed of radiation experts and received only sporadic public debate (Oge, 1991).

Several reasons can be offered to explain the relative obscurity of radon in the public health debate. First, although there was consensus in the scientific community regarding the linkage between radon and lung cancer, there was considerable debate concerning the dose-response relationship (Rose, 1989). Extrapolation of excess lung cancer deaths of uranium miners to American households presented uncertainty about the real extent of risk. Especially troublesome was EPA's assumption that dose-response between radon and lung cancer was linear (i.e., there was no threshold tolerance or safe level of radon exposure).

A second reason for a subdued approach was the lack of countervailing political positions regarding radon policy. Environmental hazards that reach public attention usually have groups that emphasize potential health risks--consumer advocacy or health groups, grass-roots citizens groups, or environmental lobbyists. Most environmental hazards have opposing groups that minimize health risks and seek to discredit risk assessment data.

Radon did not face such confrontation. Instead, radon was oddly positioned so that both sides of the most relevant political debates of the time, the use of nuclear energy and energy conservation, were motivated to discount radon health risks. The emerging nuclear energy industry was reluctant to discuss radon emissions from uranium mining waste; proponents of energy conservation did not want to emphasize potential problems in tightly-sealed, energy efficient homes.

A final reason rests with the lack of bureaucratic responsibility for radon. No federal agency was clearly positioned or eager to deal with radon, a naturally-occurring phenomenon. The EPA was legislatively oriented to control outdoor pollutants due to human causes; the Department of Energy was concerned with radon mostly as it related to energy-producing activities; and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and other federal agencies involved in providing housing stock or insuring mortgage loans viewed fixing radon in homes as a potentially large drain on agency fiscal resources. Absent public concern or a clear congressional mandate, no federal agencies were eager to establish any radon policy (United States General Accounting Office, 1988).

Two potential focusing events in the late 1960s failed to trigger a governmental response to public radon exposures. First, President Lyndon Johnson spoke of his concern about uranium miners' exposure to radon gas in his State of the Union address in 1968, promising to provide worker's compensation benefits to uranium miners who contracted lung cancer. Labor Secretary Wirtz issued orders limiting the amount of radioactive gas to which uranium miners could be exposed. In testimony before the congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, the acting United States surgeon general recommended immediate action to cut radon levels in uranium mines. Later that year, the Federal Radiation Council urged limiting miners' exposure to radon. Despite the presence of radon on the formal agenda, however, no consideration was made of residential exposures to radon.

In 1969, the use of uranium mill tailings in aggregate for home foundations was associated with elevated residential radon levels in Colorado. Two homes were evacuated because of high radon levels in Uravan, Colorado, and the Colorado Department of Health called for radon testing of homes in the Grand Junction area. In 1971, congressional hearings held in Denver, Colorado, revealed that mill railings had been used by builders in "thousands of locations," and Congress authorized $5 million to pay for remedial action. Stories about "hot" homes in Grand Junction ran in Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times.

Neither event, however, prompted policymakers to consider indoor radon as a general public health risk. In the first instance, radon exposure was regulated for uranium miners; the second experience prompted removal or containment of uranium mill tailings in residential dwellings and the passage of the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act in 1978, but no further congressional attention was paid to public exposure from naturally-occurring radon.

Radon Enters the Formal Agenda

Radon's entry onto the systemic agenda may be attributed mainly to the discovery of extraordinary levels of the pollutant in a single home in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, in late 1984. This single incident was so extreme and paradoxical that it stimulated an immediate response by state, federal, and local political actors. Local and state media attention soon followed, and a vocal citizen group formed to lobby for governmental remedies to the perceived radon scare.

The Limerick nuclear power plant outside of Philadelphia was nearing completion in 1984. In preparation for going on-line, the utility installed monitors to assess worker exposure to radiation. Stanley Watras, a construction engineer, repeatedly triggered the plant's radiation alarms. Since the plant was not yet generating fission products, Watras had to be receiving his radiation dose from outside the plant. A radiation survey of the Wan, as home revealed extraordinary levels of radioactivity (Gerusky, 1987). Health physicists notified the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (DER) (Mazur, 1987).

After verifying test results of 2,700 pictorials per liter (PSI/l), the DER hand-delivered are commendation that the Watras family immediately evacuate their home. The home's radioactivity levels far exceeded the level of radiation dose permitted for uranium miners, and the lung cancer risk to the Watras family was estimated by some scientists to be equivalent to smoking 135 packs of cigarettes a day (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 1992b).

Stunned by the severity of the Watras event, the DER launched a large-scale radon testing program for homes within the Watras neighborhood in southern Berks County, testing 2,641 homes within six months. The tests revealed that 49% of the homes had elevated levels of radon contamination, although no home approached the level in the Watras home. With an additional $1 million appropriation from the state, the DER expanded its radon survey to include a three-county area encompassed by the Reading Prong Geological Province. Under this program, 15,544 homes were tested; 60% exceeded radon guidance levels adopted by the DER (Mazur, 1987).

While reaction from the DER was immediate and pronounced, the Watras incident did not initially command national media attention. Media coverage remained localized until a citizen's group was formed to lobby for government aid to fix Pennsylvania homes with high radon levels. "Pennsylvanians Against Radon" eventually attracted more than 200 members and over 3,000 signatures on the group's petition. The group enlisted the assistance of Robert Yuhnke, a regional counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. Yuhnke's involvement ultimately resulted in national media coverage by the New York Times on May 19, 1985.

The New York Times' front-page article expanded radon from a local to a national issue. Running the story on the front page with a headline, "Radioactive Gas in Soil Raises Concern in Three-State Area," captured the attention of a national audience. The story included a statement by an EPA radon specialist that "virtually every state had areas of radon contamination that might pose a health threat" (Shabecoff, 1985). The New York Times story also articulated the health risks associated with radon to the public. Radon was described as the major cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers. Yuhnke was quoted as stating that radon was a "cancer time bomb waiting to go off."

Shortly after the New York Times article, stories about indoor radon appeared in several major news magazines. Tracing the number of radon stories listed in the New York Times index and the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature suggests a virtual explosion of media interest. With the exception of the Grand Junction stories and a later story of elevated radon found in homes built over copper mines in Butte, Montana, no residential radon articles were referenced between 1970 and 1985. However, by the end of 1986, 19 articles on radon by periodicals referenced in the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature were printed, with story headlines such as, "Your House may be a Death Trap" (U.S. News and World Report) and "Radon Gas: The Deadly Threat" (Newsweek). Moreover, media interest in radon remained high. In 1987, 22 articles ran in major news magazines; in 1988, 30 articles on radon were listed in the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature. National media attention on the dangers of radon exposure, coupled with the focusing event of the discovery of radon in the Watras home, were critical catalysts in putting radon on the systemic agenda.

Media attention to the radon issue prompted the EPA to respond to public demands for government intervention. Before the Watras event, the EPA had conducted only limited and isolated studies of radon in homes (Oge, 1991). As a result, there was little institutional wisdom about radon concentration inside homes; the Office of Radiation Programs (ORP) staff had not anticipated that any home could have such extreme levels. Nor did the agency fully anticipate the magnitude of nationwide radon contamination, the need to develop protocols for radon testing and mitigation, or the need for public communication about radon (United States House of Representatives, 1987).

In September 1985, EPA Administrator Lee Thomas created the Radon Action Program to respond to requests by state agencies for assistance in dealing with residential radon after the Watras event. The Radon Action Program focused on research, technical assistance to the states, and public information. The cornerstone of the public information campaign was the publication of the Citizen's Guide to Radon, which presented to the public the Agency's first recommended action level of 4 pCi/l for indoor radon.

Without new legislation, EPA authority to deal with radon was limited. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA had broad authority to implement radon research and provide technical assistance and guidance to homeowners. The Act, however, did not provide EPA with specific legislative authorization to regulate indoor air pollutants such as radon. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), or Superfund, authorized EPA to respond to significant health threats from hazardous substances. Radon met the Act's definition of a hazardous substance, but the EPA had not used CERCLA to regulate naturally-occurring radioactive contamination.

The EPA was the primary agency to respond to radon in the initial agenda setting phase. HUD involvement in radon prior to 1985 was limited to a few communities where unusually high radon levels were caused by contaminated aggregate or when homes had been built on top of phosphate beds or mining shafts. In these instances, HUD's role was simply to provide a disclosure notice to prospective applicants for mortgage insurance (United States General Accounting Office, 1988). After the Watras event illustrated that "normal" homes could have high radon levels, HUD and the other major federal housing agencies (Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Farmers Home Administration) chose not to extend the disclosure notice requirement to other parts of the country or to require testing before insuring housing stock. Thus, federal housing agencies did very little to expand the public's knowledge of radon, even when radon reached the systemic agenda.

State actors, in contrast, were eager to keep radon as an issue on the national governmental agenda. States, especially Pennsylvania and New Jersey, pressed hard for federal assistance in conducting radon tests and developing state radon programs (United States House of Representatives, 1987). New Jersey passed radon legislation eight months after the New York Times article appeared (United States House of Representatives, 1987). National media attention to radon rubbed political salt in New Jersey's existing radon wound. Like Grand Junction, Colorado, 10 years earlier, Montclair, New Jersey, had its own radon problems from contaminated fill material. The clean-up was now eligible for Superfund assistance, but no community was willing to receive barrels of radon-filled soil. This tangential issue helped to promote an active state presence (Mazur, 1987).

Formal agenda status was achieved in late 1985 when a coalition of senators from Pennsylvania, Maine, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island brought the radon issue into the congressional arena. Hearings began in 1986, and radon was included in the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA). Under SARA, the EPA was authorized to conduct a national radon survey and develop methods to reduce indoor radon levels (United States General Accounting Office, 1988). The SARA provision, however, did not establish a coherent United States radon policy. Radon continued to be raised as an agenda item in the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works until the Indoor Radon Abatement Act (IRAA) passed in 1988.

In many respects, IRAA simply expanded EPA's on-going Radon Action Program. The Act reflected the non-regulatory approach of the EPA toward radon and the ability of homeowners to protect themselves against high radon levels. IRAA relied on the EPA's strategy of public outreach, information, and education to stimulate homeowner action. The Act also reflected the EPA's desire to make radon primarily a state activity by establishing a State Indoor Radon Grant (SIRG) program.

On the other hand, IRAA reflected congressional concern about radon. F example, the Act contains a virtually impossible national long-term goal of reducing indoor radon levels to those of the ambient outdoor air. Moreover, IRAA gave the EPA less than two years to promulgate model building standards and construction techniques for new construction, complete a study of radon in schools, and ensure that all federal buildings were tested for radon.(1)

Agenda Setting for Asbestos

International medical and scientific evidence identifying asbestos as a health hazard has existed since the early part of this century. In 1907, deaths of factory workers were linked to asbestos dust exposure, and the first official case of asbestosis was documented in 1924 (Castleman, 1990). During the next 50 years, medical evidence gathered in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and South Africa widened the deadly reach of asbestos by adding to the list of associated diseases and expanding the populations harmed by asbestos.

Occupational exposure to asbestos was associated with pleural mesothelioma in epidemiological studies reported in medical journals in 1943. In 1947, medical evidence was sufficient to prompt the Chief Inspector of Factories, United Kingdom Ministry of Labour and National Service, to link asbestos not only with asbestosis, but also with mesothelioma and lung cancer (Castleman, 1990). By the early 1950s, reports in industrial medicine and other journals provided nearly overwhelming proof of the carcinogenicity of asbestos (United States House of Representatives, 1981).

Research not only expanded the breadth of asbestos-related health effects from asbestosis to lung cancer and mesothelioma, it also expanded the scope of risk associated with asbestos from occupational mining exposure to other exposures. A seminal study reported in 1964 associated a greater incidence of mesothelioma and lung cancer in workers who installed insulation containing asbestos (Selikoff, Hammond, & Churg, 1965). By the 1960s, cancer risks to workers that handled raw asbestos, used it as construction material (primarily as insulation), or who were involved in bystander occupations (such as office workers or families of asbestos workers), were reported in a growing body of medical research.

States responded to the accumulating medical evidence by including asbestos-related diseases in worker's compensation laws. Iowa was the first to pass asbestos compensation legislation in 1913; by 1945, 20 states had passed legislation (United States House of Representatives, 1978). Workers, too, began to seek redress for asbestosis. The first out-of-court settlement was reached in 1933; the first court case awarding damages to an asbestos worker for asbestosis occurred in 1937 (United States House of Representatives, 1978).

While medical, legal, and state actors were paying attention to asbestos' health effects, the federal government was virtually silent. Other than a report issued by the Public Health Service in 1938, the federal government did little to protect the public from deadly asbestos exposures. What explains this lack of attention?

Twight (1990), Castleman (1990), and others have observed that federal officials failed to act as asbestos regulators, principally because they were engaged in promoting the asbestos industry. Between 1930 and 1970, this promotion was manifest in government sales of stockpiled asbestos to private industry after World War II, replenishment of the stockpile during the 1950s, and continued stimulation and subsidizing of domestic production of raw asbestos. With congressional approval, sales of asbestos from the federal stockpile and consensual support of the asbestos industry continued into the mid-1970s, decades beyond when a regulatory response would have been warranted. United States asbestos consumption peaked in 1973 at nearly 800,000 short tons, or about seven pounds per capita (United States House of Representatives, 1979).

Moreover, Twight (1990, 1991) observes that governmental officials either neglected or refused to disseminate health information to federal workers using asbestos. Nowhere was the concealment of public health warnings more apparent than in the United States Navy, where shipyard workers were exposed to large amounts of asbestos (United States House of Representatives, 1984). In a similar fashion, the asbestos industry was discounting medical evidence identifying asbestos as an occupational health risk (Brodeur, 1974, 1985; Castleman, 1990).

The history of asbestos from the 1930s through the mid-1970s reveals an eerie correlation of increasing knowledge of the risk of asbestos exposures in both occupational and non-occupational settings with increasing support by public officials of the asbestos industry. Rather than try to regulate exposure, policymakers chose instead to advance asbestos production and keep concerns about asbestos exposure off the formal agenda.

Asbestos Enters the Formal Agenda

By the 1970s, several factors outside of government coalesced to force asbestos onto the formal congressional agenda. First, the long latency period between asbestos exposure and cancer incidence was beginning to expire. Thirty years had elapsed since millions of shipyard workers and their families had been exposed to asbestos during World War II, supplying epidemiologists with case-studies of mesothelioma and lung cancer. Since mesothelioma is extremely rare, its use as a marker in epidemiological research was persuasive. Thus, medical evidence linking asbestos exposure to cancer became difficult to reject, even by politicians closely allied with the asbestos industry.

Second, affected asbestos workers sought redress in the courts. Asbestos workers or their surviving families began to sue asbestos companies. The 1973 landmark decision, Borel v. Fiberboard Paper Products et al. [493 Federal 2d 1076 (5th Circuit, 1973)], cert. denied [419 U.S. 869 (1974)] greatly increased the liability of asbestos companies. Borel opened legal avenues for asbestos workers under the theory of strict liability, allowing them to win cases by proving that asbestos companies had failed to warn them adequately of associated health risks. By 1982, some 30,000 claims had been filed against 260 asbestos firms (Marcus, 1982). Expecting to pay $2 billion in individual settlements and court costs, Manville Corporation, the largest United States producer of asbestos, filed for Chapter 11 protection under the Federal Bankruptcy Act (Castleman, 1990).(2)

Third, labor unions and asbestos victims' groups pressed for governmental response to asbestos-related disease. The Asbestos Workers' Union began informing workers of adverse health effects through the Asbestos Worker Magazine, and groups like the White Lung Association began to lobby for federal regulation.

Fourth, policy entrepreneurs continued to press for governmental regulations concerning asbestos exposure. More importantly, they expanded the scope of the issue from occupational to environmental exposure. Among the most vocal entrepreneurs was Dr. Irving L. Selikoff, Director of Environmental Health, Mt. Sinai Medical Center, who had linked asbestos-related cancer to insulators in 1964. Selikoff and others began to sound the public alarm about non-occupational exposures, including asbestos fibers in women's coats, talcum powder, paint additives, injectable drugs, and ambient air downwind of asbestos factories. The concerted effort of the scientific community did not go unnoticed by the popular media. From 1970 to 1980, over 200 articles on asbestos health risks are listed in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature and the index to the New York Times. Consumer-oriented entrepreneurs also became active in the early 1970s. Media articles first report Ralph Nader's involvement in 1970; New Yorker journalist Paul Brodeur's first book on asbestos-related deaths was published in 1974.

Fifth, the policy community began to respond. EPA used its authority under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act to regulate asbestos exposure. In 1973, EPA first promulgated the Asbestos National Emission Standard for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 1990). The standard regulated exposures of visible asbestos fibers during demolition or renovation of buildings. (However, the EPA did not move to ban asbestos until 1989.)

Finally, asbestos as a public health concern found a hearing in the states. For example, New York politicians were concerned about potential asbestos exposure during the construction of the World Trade Center. In 1970, Dr. W. Nicholson, a New York City physician, argued that asbestos dust could escape into the city during construction. New York City's Environmental Protection Administration responded by announcing new regulations to control the spraying of asbestos insulation, and New York City Mayor John Lindsay prohibited the spraying of asbestos insulation in all public construction projects.

Most importantly, states were embroiled in local conflicts about asbestos in schools. School districts in several states closed schools temporarily because of concerns about unsafe asbestos levels, and groups such as the National Education Association called for a national presence in regulating asbestos in schools (United States House of Representatives, 1979). The focus on schools became a central foundation by which congressional architects of policy would respond to asbestos.

In sum, scientific and consumer protection entrepreneurs expanded the scope of asbestos danger to include most Americans. The media faithfully printed stories about asbestos as a health concern. Writers like Brodeur, who were willing to take the asbestos industry and government to task for failure to acknowledge asbestos health risks, were effective at shaping the asbestos causal story to include both private and public culprits. States became sensitive to asbestos hazards, especially in protected environments such as schools. The specter of children affected by asbestos was enough to tip the legislative calculus toward regulation of environmental asbestos.

In 1980, Congress enacted the Asbestos School Hazard Detection and Control Act, which authorized federal grants and interest-free loans to finance the detection and cleanup of asbestos in schools. Funding was stalled, however, until Congress passed the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act of 1984, which authorized $600 million for school districts. The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986 directed EPA to issue regulations requiring public and private elementary and secondary schools to inspect their buildings and develop asbestos management plans (U.S. House of Representatives, 1990).


This study offers several conclusions about agenda setting for radon and asbestos. Elements identified by Kingdon were present in the cases of both radon and asbestos, although with different degrees of importance. For radon, a key focusing event, a dramatic spike of media attention, a lack of countervailing pressures by external groups, and the availability of EPA solutions resulted in rather palatable policymaking. For asbestos, multiple focusing events, sustained media presence, and relentless documentation of health risks by medical experts, subsequently legitimized by litigation, were necessary to prompt Congress to pry open an agenda setting window that had remained shut for decades.

Moreover, the policy approach for asbestos and radon was predicted by Stone's theory of causal stories. Radon, as a naturally occurring substance, had no ready-made culprits. Even though governmental officials knew that radon was dangerous, there was little evidence to suspect elevated levels in homes. Thus, there were no obvious governmental or private villains to attack, and few opportunities for hidden agendas were present. However, in the absence of abhorrent human misconduct and culpability, there was little incentive to initiate a strong governmental response. Therefore, the resulting policy was "underwhelming," in the sense that no dramatic steps were taken to address what the EPA identified as the public's number one health risk (United States Environmental Protection Administration, 1987).(3)

If Stone's theory of causal stories helps to explain the governmental response to ration, it also is instructive in explaining government's eventual response to asbestos. Asbestos as a public health concern had culpable parties inside and outside of government and, therefore, was the most potent type of causal story. Asbestos reached the formal agenda after a prolonged attack on the system by policy entrepreneurs, and only after media and legal arenas provided necessary conduits for information. Congress responded when the transaction costs of continued allegiance with the asbestos industry exceeded those of supporting strong asbestos legislation.

The twin actions of government both to promote the use of asbestos and to conceal the associated health risks also profoundly shaped the scope of America's asbestos exposure. First, the virtually unrestrained use of asbestos inevitably broadened the population at risk from asbestos workers to the general population. Second, the downplaying of health concerns prompted massive litigation and public distrust, which ultimately narrowed the range of possible solutions available to cope with the asbestos problem. Congressional architects of asbestos legislation avoided culpability for prolonging the public health risk by crafting legislation that focused on perhaps the most vulnerable population: school children. School districts, in turn, frequently responded by removing rather than managing the asbestos in place, thereby creating needless asbestos exposure and escalating compliance costs.(4)

Two additional observations can be made about environmental agenda setting where public health is an issue. First, scientific and medical evidence are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for agenda setting. In both cases, scientific voices were raised identifying asbestos and radon as carcinogens. In isolation, however, the chorus of experts did not propel either pollutant onto the formal agenda. However, once asbestos and ration reached the agenda, scientific experts were important shapers of the policy debate.

Second, long latency periods associated with carcinogens complicate the ability of science to reach consensus and the ability of the public to respond, while increasing the ability of policymakers to defer the issue. A major focusing event for asbestos occurred after the latency period for shipyard workers had expired. Latency periods suggest another distinction between radon and asbestos: the availability of tangible evidence. Asbestos provided tangible proof of its deadly capabilities, both as a substance that can be observed, and in the etiology of asbestos-related disease. Radon offers no evidence, either to the homeowner who can't feel it, or to the researcher looking to attribute particular deaths to radon exposure but who has no similar mesothelioma marker. It seems far more difficult to tell a causal story of public risk when that risk cannot be readily observed. If radon gas entering homes was blue, or malodorous, undoubtedly public interest would be stirred and the risk would seem more credible. Current epidemiological studies of nonsmoking residential populations may eventually prove persuasive for radon, as the Selikoff, Hammond, and Churg (1965) study was for asbestos.


1 As of November, 1993, only the radon school study has been completed, although final model building codes were expected by December, 1993.

2 Three years later, Manville established a personal injury settlement trust and agreed to pay $935 million. By 1990, the Manville Trust had received 152,000 claims.

3 Scientific debate about the risk from nonoccupational exposure to radon continues. Most debate centers around the assumptions of the BEIR IV linear dose-response model, which assumes no threshold or safe level of radon. For a critique of the 4 pCi/l guidance level, see Ben Bolch and Harold Lyons, "A Multibillion-Dollar Radon Scare," Public Interest, Spring, 1990, or Leonard A. Cole, Element of Risk: The Politics of Radon, American Association for the Advancement of Science Press (1993).

4 Many scientists suggest that removing asbestos from public buildings and schools presents a far greater danger to building occupants than leaving asbestos in place. See B. T. Mossman, J. Bignon, M. Corn, A. Seaton, & J. B. L. Gee, "Asbestos: Scientific Developments and Implications for Public Policy," Science, January 19, 1990.


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United States House of Representatives. (1981). Committee on Education and Labor. The Attorney General's asbestos liability report to the Congress. Committee Print, 97th Congress, 1st Session.

United States House of Representatives. (1984). Committee on Energy and Commerce. Subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation, and Tourism. Federal efforts to control asbestos hazards. Hearing, 98th Congress, 2nd Session.

United States House of Representatives. (1987). Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. Subcommittee on Health and the Environment. Radon exposure: Human health threat. Hearing, 99th Congress, 2nd Session.

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Denise Scheberle is assistant professor, Department of Public and Environmental Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Her research interests center on environmental policy, including indoor pollutants, and cooperative federalism. She has written several articles on environmental policy implementation.