Workers call for financial help to get to medical tests

After the Architect of the Capitol (AoC) denied their requests to pay for travel costs to a specialized asbestos clinic in Michigan, several members of the 10-man AoC tunnel crew worried about their health have decided to dip into their own pockets.  

Their decision comes at a time when photographs have surfaced showing apparent asbestos and the extent of structural damage inside the tunnels. The photos, provided to The Hill, reveal fallen blocks of concrete and piping layered in asbestos dust, according to sources familiar with the working conditions under the Capitol.

Two of the men have been approved by their health-insurance carriers to make the trip, while three others are waiting for coverage confirmation to seek testing at the National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos-Related Cancers in Detroit.

According to John Thayer, the supervisor of the tunnel crew, he and four other members of the crew will make the initial trip and, based on the results, the other five members will follow.

“We are going to send people who have health issues first,” Thayer said.

Thayer, who received tests indicating scarring on his lungs, said he hopes to make the trip as soon as Saturday.

Dr. Michael R. Harbut, co-director of the center and an expert in the diagnosis and treatment of environmental and workplace diseases, will examine the men.

He said the tests he will administer on the workers who have symptoms of respiratory illness are far more sophisticated than previous tests they have completed. Harbut said many government-regulated tests are insufficient for detecting asbestos-related diseases.

“Nearly 20 percent are missed because the tests are not sensitive enough,” he said.

Tunnel employees are typically given a “spirometry pulmonary test,” according to the AoC’s Office of the Attending Physician. During such a test, a patient breathes into a mouthpiece attached to a machine that records the amount and the rate of air that is inhaled and exhaled over a certain amount of time.

Harbut, who has co-written several studies on asbestos related illnesses, most recently in the New England Journal of Medicine, questioned the recent testimony of Attending Physician Dr. John Eisold to a Senate panel that the tunnel crew did not need a second opinion. Eisold concluded that the workers do not have asbestos-related illnesses.

“That sounds like political blather,” Harbut said, adding that he had never heard of Eisold among doctors who deal with asbestosis-related illnesses. “If people are exposed to asbestos and are symptomatic — they should have a second opinion.”

“Most of the physicians who treat [asbestosis-related diseases] medically … if we don’t know each other we’ve heard of each other,” he said.

A spokesman for the Office of the Attending Physician said, “The diagnosis of asbestosis is a very simple diagnosis. ... Any primary-care physician has the skills to interpret these basic diagnostic tests and make an accurate diagnosis of asbestosis.

“Moreover, in this situation, occupational-health-specialty-trained physicians performed the primary evaluation and ruled out the diagnosis. ... Dr. Eisold reviewed their work and agreed with their lack of a diagnosis.”

The spokesman stressed that although Eisold said that in his opinion the tunnel employees did not need a second opinion he also “noted that a second opinion is never a bad idea.”

Harbut indicated that if members of the tunnel crew who have shown symptoms of a respiratory disease are denied coverage for the tests by insurance companies he would inquire on their behalf if their visit can be funded under a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant provided to the center by the federal government.

On June 23, the AoC denied a request made by the tunnel employees to pay for travel to the center. The denial letter was signed by Mike Weiss, the director of the Capitol Power Plant.

“The [Office of the Attending Physician] has advised us that the contracted physician has reviewed the records of the Tunnel Shop employees and reports no findings in these individuals consistent with dust-induced diseases such as asbestosis,” the letter said.

Eisold reiterated that opinion June 28 at a Senate oversight hearing, telling Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee Chairman Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) that after personally inspecting the tunnel workers charts he found no evidence of asbestos exposure.

“Potential exposure to asbestos is what we are talking about,” he said. “Medical surveillance is to identify those people who may have some adverse consequences to that exposure. If there’s adverse consequences, in this particular case you’d call it asbestosis. It’s a very specific diagnosis based upon very specific X-ray findings. We have no such findings.

“We have people we have cleared to work in that environment, and we have no adverse consequences noted that could be due to asbestosis.”

Tests taken in April show high levels of asbestos inside the tunnels, and photos taken in March, before substantial repairs on the tunnels began, show piles of apparent asbestos layered on piping.

In addition to the asbestos, large pieces of concrete that had fallen from the walls and ceilings can also been seen on the floor of the tunnels.

In December 2000, the Office of Compliance warned Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman that, because of the confined space, falling concrete and lack of communication, workers’ lives could be in jeopardy should they become trapped.

The utility tunnels, which house piping that carries steam and chilled water from the Capitol Power Plant to the Capitol campus, are extremely hot, reaching temperatures as high as 140 degrees. Fans that typically cool the space have been turned off in recent months since the asbestos problem were reported in order to keep them from further spreading the toxic dust.

The pictures were taken approximately two weeks after the AoC mandated that the crew wear protective breathing equipment, a precaution the workers were previously not required to take.

The April tests showed several samples taken from the tunnels to be higher than the exposure limit set by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). One sample registered 30 times the limit for exposure.

On Feb. 28, the Office of Compliance filed a complaint against the AoC for failing to repair the tunnels in response to the December 2000 citation.

The AoC did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment but has indicated during Senate oversight hearings that repairs inside the tunnels are taking place and added that it is working hard to make the environment safer for their employees.

The office was allocated $27.6 million in the recent emergency supplemental appropriations bill to begin structural improvements. The AoC has estimated that $200 million will be needed to make all of the repairs necessary.

For photos click here