In 1976, W.R. Grace & Co. convinced the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to consider products containing less than one percent asbestos as non-asbestos containing products. 

What became known as the "Grace rule" allowed the company to continue selling Monokote, a fireproofing spray used in the construction of many U.S. buildings, including the World Trade Center. It also promulgated the asbestos industry assertion that asbestos is dangerous only in high quantities, even as some branches of the EPA declared it unsafe at any level.

But now, according to a story in New Jersey-based newspaper The Times of Trenton, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report being released later this week will declare the Grace rule is based on an "arbitrary number" and that even low concentrations of asbestos can be harmful.

When EPA first began cleaning up the asbestos left in Libby by W.R. Grace vermiculite mining, it adopted the stance that asbestos was unsafe at any level.

But, when the World Trade Center buildings fell shortly after the Libby cleanup began, the Grace rule was embraced by the EPA as the standard for safe levels of exposure in Manhattan.

W.R. Grace seized on the discrepancy between the Libby and Manhattan cleanups to argue that the one percent rule, if it was good enough in Manhattan, should be good enough in Libby.

Grace's argument seemed to work. The company sent letters to former EPA Chief Christine Todd Whitman pointing out the discrepancy. And, according Libby resident Gordon Sullivan, who once served as a liaison between the EPA and the town, the cleanup plan there went from the EPA removing all asbestos to "You clean it up."

The EPA distributed brochures to all mailboxes in Libby telling residents that it was okay to clean up asbestos with a HEPA vacuum cleaner and a wet rag, which is exactly what the agency was telling Manhattan residents to do.

The EPA eventually withdrew the brochures in Libby after citizen complaints, but never backed off the Grace rule in Manhattan.

The GAO report will likely provide ammunition to activists in Manhattan, and other places where Libby asbestos was sent, to demand stringent cleanup standards.

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