The Asbestos Hazard Lurking Within the Capitol Tunnels

Architect of the Capitol Aware of Asbestos Dangers and Failed to Act

WASHINGTON, DC — March 23, 2007 — John Thayer, supervisor of the workers who maintain the underground utility system beneath the Capitol office buildings, spoke out this month about the severe asbestos hazards faced by his crew. Testifying at a Senate Committee hearing, Mr. Thayer described his 22–year career amid hot, cramped passages with falling concrete and thick asbestos dust from decaying insulation.

According to Mr. Thayer, he did not know until last year that the concentration of airborne asbestos in the tunnels was 30 to 40 times the legal limit. He said that the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), the entity responsible for the tunnel upkeep, was aware of the problem for years yet failed to supply the workers with respirators. Also, he said, the workers were later denied appropriate medical monitoring by the physician of their choice and were pressured into silence. "And if workers at the heart of the U.S. government are being put at risk, then imagine what it must be like for the millions of unseen workers in private industry," Mr. Thayer commented.

Senators Concerned About Asbestos Dangers

A citation was issued against the AOC in 2000 for numerous safety violations in the tunnels, and the federal Office of Compliance filed a complaint against the agency in February, 2006, but conditions still have not been significantly improved. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D–CA) recently sent a letter to the head of the AOC, Steven Ayers, questioning his handling of $27.6 million in funds for tunnel repairs (The Hill, March 9, 2007). She demanded a clear asbestos abatement plan and a specific timeline for fixing deficiencies. "Worker health and safety must be of the utmost concern to the AOC, and to the Capitol Hill community," she wrote. "Therefore, I ask you [to] raise the priority of this matter and proceed as fast as possible."

Sen. Patty Murray (D–WA), sponsor of the proposed Ban Asbestos Act of 2007, has also expressed her dismay about the situation in the tunnels (Press Release, March 20, 2007). Concerning the refusal of Mr. Ayers and the AOC to pay for the medical examination of the workers by Dr. Michael Harbut, a renowned pulmonary specialist, Ms. Murray said "...you may have been more worried about your legal liabilities in this matter than providing the best care possible for these men."

Asbestos Leaks In the Capitol Building Complex

In February, 2006, federal inspectors found material on conveyor belts within the tunnels that consisted of 10% asbestos. They also discovered that asbestos had leaked out from a tunnel entrance into the Government Printing Office building. At the Senate hearing, Mr. Thayer testified that asbestos is also released into the air through the grates on the sidewalks of Capital Hill.

The federal buildings may also contain asbestos in their dry wall, joint compounds, floor tiles, ceiling tiles, plaster, insulation and roofing. Use of asbestos in these materials was common in the 1950s through the 1980s in both homes and commercial buildings. By one estimate, over 35 million houses nationwide contain asbestos–contaminated vermiculite attic insulation.

Asbestos may not be a great problem if it is encapsulated and kept in good condition. However, if asbestos–containing building materials become frayed or worn, asbestos may be released into the air where people can breathe it in. Asbestos may also be released during repairs, remodeling or demolitions.

Asbestos Exposure and Your Legal Rights

With our main office located in California, the mesothelioma attorneys at Brayton Purcell have been extensively involved in protecting the legal rights of asbestos victims, including injured workers and their families for over 24 years. Many of our clients suffer from asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer, or other asbestos–related diseases. We will provide a free evaluation of your potential case if you have been exposed to asbestos and think you may have developed an asbestos–related disease.