Tunnel workers exposed to high level of asbestos

The 10-man crew working inside crumbling underground utility tunnels has been exposed to extremely high levels of asbestos, according to results of laboratory tests commissioned by the Architect of the Capitol (AoC) and obtained by The Hill.

Eight of the estimated 40 samples commissioned by the AoC were taken from devices worn by employees and contractors that measure how much asbestos the employees have come into contact with.

AMA Analytical Services, a specialized environmental laboratory based in Lanham, Md., analyzed the results of those 8 samples. Its analysis showed them to be over the personal-exposure limit set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). AMA reported its analysis to the AoC between April 3 and 17.

OSHA stipulates that employees who are exposed to an “airborne concentration of asbestos in excess of 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter of air” in an eight-hour time period must wear protective equipment such as respirators.

One of the samples taken registered at 3.491 fibers per cubic centimeters, significantly higher than the OSHA limit. Other high samples registered at 0.462, 0.174 and 0.168 fibers per cubic centimeter.

The laboratory declined to discuss the tests results, so the lengths of time in which employees were exposed to the high levels could not be determined. OSHA stipulates that an employee should not be exposed to more than 1.0 fiber per cubic centimeter of tainted air for more than 30 minutes.

Although the AoC started requiring that tunnel employees wear protective equipment such as respirators on March 16, several have been working in the asbestos-laden tunnels for 10 to 20 years.

Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the AoC, said the agency is committed to protecting the tunnel employees from the safety hazards.  

“As a precaution most protective of employee health, Capitol Power Plant management instituted a requirement for all personnel entering the tunnels (except one tunnel in which asbestos was removed in 2005) to wear [protective equipment] until reported asbestos damage and debris could be assessed and air monitoring could verify if respirator use continues to be necessary,” she wrote in an e-mail.

One asbestos expert warned that the measuring method the laboratory used is not an exact science and that samples could be tainted by other particles in the tunnels.

“The methodology does not differentiate between [particles],” said Michael Matilainen, a senior environmental scientist at the engineering firm Tighe and Bond. “The sample can be a mix of asbestos, fiberglass or other debris.”

In his testimony to oversight committees and in a letter to employees this month, Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman has maintained to staff and congressional appropriators that no tests have registered results above OSHA standards. Malecki would not discuss the apparent discrepancy between Hantman’s public statements and the laboratory samples, saying only that the AoC would continue to monitor the situation.

“The data are being evaluated, and respirators and other protective equipment will continue to be required until such time as there is sufficient data to support the discontinuation of this personal-protective equipment,” she said.

The level of exposure depends on the workers’ proximity to the substance and how close the sample that was tested was located to the “breathing zone,” the area around the employee’s nose and mouth, according to John Howard, the director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

Nevertheless, union officials are livid that workers are being exposed to elevated levels and question AoC motives for not releasing the results publicly.

“It is outrageous that they are hiding their information,” said Carl Goldman, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 26.

Malecki said the AoC would share the information with its tunnel workers: “As we are conducting personal air sampling on tunnel-entry teams, we are sharing the raw data with tunnel entrants and will continue to do so.”

Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO safety and health director, said the OSHA limit should not be construed as a safe level.

“We also know that low exposures still pose a significant risk,” she said.

Seminario said that prolonged asbestos exposure — even at low levels — could cause lung cancer or mesothelioma, also a deadly cancer.

Nan Thompson, a representative of AFSCME Local 2910 at the Library of Congress, said that tunnel workers might have had “long-term exposure.”

“Exposure can take years to show some kind of medical [evidence]. … It’s a long-term commitment to monitor employees who have had long-term asbestos exposure,” she said.

The state of the underground utility tunnels, which house pipes from the Capitol Power Plant, providing steam for heating and cooling the Capitol complex, will be discussed at Thursday’s Senate Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch oversight hearing on the Capitol Visitor Center.