Billings Courthouse Plagued by Asbestos

For years, the Battin Federal Courthouse in Billings, Montana has been plagued by high levels of asbestos. After complaining about the situation but receiving no action from the federal government, Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg wants a congressional subcommittee to make a decision once and for all about the fate of the building.

According to a story aired on KTVQ-TV Billings, Rehberg contacted Chairwoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and Ranking Member Sam Graves of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management to determine what can be done about the asbestos-laden courthouse building.

Thus far, notes the story, the state’s General Services Administration (GSA) has recommended the building be destroyed and new courthouse space be leased. However, concerns as to whether the GSA can afford to lease a new space long-term have prevented Congress from approving any funds to move the project forward.

The story notes that the courthouse building has already been evacuated twice because of high levels of asbestos in the air – once in 2005 and once in 2006. In both instances, it is believed that asbestos dust was carried through the ventilation system and released in jury and court rooms on the upper floors. Those in the rooms may have inhaled toxic asbestos fibers, which can eventually cause serious diseases such as mesothelioma cancer.

Maryland Union Files Asbestos Complaint

A spokesman for the Maryland chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees announced today that they have filed a complaint with a state health agency on behalf of employees at a Baltimore child welfare services office, citing reports by contractors of friable asbestos found in the building over the weekend.

According to an article in the Baltimore Sun, union spokesperson Joe Lawrence says contractors were working inside the building last weekend and found what was believed to be asbestos wrapped around the pipes at the office on Guilford Ave.

However, Brian Wilbon, deputy secretary for operations for the Department of Human Resources, maintains that there were no contractors in the building over the weekend and that no asbestos was found during two separate inspections that took place over the last year. He says the results were previously reported to employees at meetings held after the inspections.

“If I felt members of our staff were in danger, I would remove them,” Wilbon said.

Wilbon says a similar complaint was filed last year in regards to water leaks and rodent infestion at the aging Guilford Ave. office, where about 350 state Department of Social Services employees work.

“That building has a history of problems, and we’re not seeing the urgency from the administration that we need to see,” Lawrence said.

Asbestos Keeps Fire Victims Out

Dangerous asbestos is keeping tenants from claiming their belongings more than two weeks after a three-alarm fire destroyed part of their apartment building in Framingham, Mass.

According to an article in MetroWest Daily News, more than 100 apartment dwellers have been prevented from re-entering the building and collecting their property because the fire left dangerous asbestos dust on the premises at Edgewater-1 Jefferson Village, built in 1966.

“I still haven’t been allowed back in,” said Laura Fritz, who lived in the apartment building for 3 years. She’s anxiously awaiting the opportunity to claim that $20,000 in belongings she says are inside her unit. Her insurance adjuster, she says, can’t get in either.

Fritz said an official told residents of the complex, “If you go in, you’ll be arrested.”
According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, the complex has been granted an asbestos abatement permit to clear several thousand square feet of asbestos from the building. Asbestos was found in the ceilings, pipe fittings and other areas of the structure, according to DEP spokesman Joe Ferson.

“As a matter of public safety, you can’t have people going in that area,” said Ferson, who noted the permit is valid until June.

Ferson added that before the building will be declared safe for residents to re-enter, air quality tests will need to be completed.

Asbestos Worries San Antonio Residents

San Antonio residents that live near the city’s Blue Star Arts Complex think their neighborhood may be contaminated with dangerous asbestos and will find out for sure when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) begins conducting soil and air testing in the area.

According to an EPA spokesperson, the tests to be conducted by the agency involve creating dust at the site and collecting the airborne fibers for testing. KSAT-TV reports that initial tests conducted on the soil have indeed showed the presence of asbestos, a toxic mineral that can cause serious pulmonary diseases, such as malignant mesothelioma and asbestosis.

“People have gotten sick (and) I’ve heard of cases where they’ve died of cancer,” Helen Garza said. “Is it related? We don’t know.”

A local geologist believes his neighbors shouldn’t be so worried about the tests. “You hear asbestos, you hear cancer, you hear the boogeyman and it’s become sort of, ‘The boogeyman is out for me,’” Jerry White said.

The EPA told residents that if unacceptable levels of asbestos are confirmed, they will begin replacing the tainted soil with clean soil.

“It’s basically a dig-and-haul process,” EPA spokesman Erik Delgado said.

Test results are expected in about two weeks.

Asbestos Consultant Fined

An asbestos consultant who was hired by the Muncie, Indiana school district to oversee asbestos concerns during renovations of a local high school has been fined for violations of the state’s Occupational Health and Safety Act.

According to an article in the Muncie Star Press, ACM & Environmental Services, Indianapolis, has been accused of committing eight “serious violations” last year during the renovation of Central High School.

Reports filed in regards to the incident indicate that the alleged violations are as follows:

• Employees performed spot abatement of spray-on fireproofing without using

• No written respiratory protection program for employees who voluntarily wore
full-face, tight-fitting respirators to protect against asbestos exposure.

• Employees performed spot abatement of asbestos-containing material without
establishing a regulated area.

• The wrong kind of monitoring was done when employees cleaned up spray-on
fireproofing that had fallen to the floor. Sampling and analysis was not done
according to approved methodology.

• Employees scraped sprayed-on fireproofing off of the ceiling and I beams
without using plastic dropcloths on the floor.

• Untrained employees scraped small spots of spray-on fireproofing off of the
ceiling and I beams.

• Basic information about respirators was not provided to employees who
voluntarily wore respirators.

Sean Keefer, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Labor, said ACM was expected to sign an expedited informal settlement agreement (EISA) that calls for the proposed penalty to be lowered to $975.

Sater Electric, Daleville, the project’s mechanical-electrical contractor, already has signed an EISA to resolve eight separate serious violations it was accused of committing while assisting with the job at Central. Sater’s alleged violations included “disturbing spray-on fireproofing without establishing a regulated area, failure to reduce dust emissions, lack of dropcloths and lack of respirators, safety glasses, protective clothing and training for employee.” The contractor paid a penalty of $796.25.

“We are no longer working in areas designated by the owner that contains asbestos and we will not return to any areas until written proof is provided that a competent person has conducted an exposure assessment,” Jack Sater wrote in the EISA.

School Supt. Marlin Creasy has said there was no reason to believe students were exposed to asbestos during the renovations.

Grace Takes Asbestos Issues to High Court

W.R. Grace and Company lawyers have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review pretrial rulings in the government’s case against them, which charges that the company and its executives tried to hide the health risks associated with its asbestos-tainted vermiculite mine in the small town of Libby, Montana, where several hundred individuals have already been stricken with or died from mesothelioma, an asbestos cancer.

According to an Associated Press article, the chemical manufacturer filed a petition this week asking the high court to evaluate a decision by a federal appeals court involving the type of asbestos found at the Libby mine.

Grace attorneys have maintained that the types of asbestos found in the Libby mine – winchite and richterite – were not regulated by the federal government during the years that the company operated the mine. That means, they say, they can’t be prosecuted for violations of the Clean Air Act.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula agreed with the company. However, his decision was overturned by an appeals court. Grace attorneys hope the Supreme Court will side with Molloy and reverse the appellate court decision.

According to the company’s petition, the government “is trying to convict defendants of violating the Clean Air Act by releasing substances that the government itself has excluded from the list of substances covered by the act.”

Andrew Ames, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, said Wednesday he could not comment, “as this is a matter in ongoing litigation.”

Attorneys for the U.S. government have 30 days to file a response to Grace’s petition. After that, the Supreme Court will decide whether or not to hear the case. If they deny the request, the appeals court decision will stand. If they agree to listen to arguments, the oral portion of the hearing will probably begin in October.

Toledo Company Fined for Asbestos Violations

A Toledo, Ohio asbestos removal company has been fined more than $12,000 for the mishandling of hazardous asbestos and for failing to follow procedures for which they were trained and licensed to perform.

According to an article in The Plain Dealer, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims that Total Environmental Services did not comply with Ohio’s asbestos emission control standards during a job for which they were contracted in 2006.

“The company failed to adequately wet asbestos-containing material that had been stripped from Gourley Hall at Ohio State University’s Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster. The company also neglected to wet the asbestos-containing waste while collecting and bagging it for disposal,” EPA said in a news release.

EPA inspectors discovered the violations when they visited the university during the renovations, which took place in February 2006. They immediately spied bags full of dried, crumbling asbestos, which should have been wetted down before removal. The EPA does acknowledge, however, that workers for Total Environmental Services did attempt to correct the problem immediately by wetting the bags.

Wet asbestos does not present a health hazard. However, dry, crumbling asbestos – known as “friable” asbestos – can break up into small fibers and can become airborne. At that point, the fibers can be inhaled by those in the vicinity. Exposure to the toxic fibers is known to cause various pulmonary diseases, including asbestos and mesothelioma, an asbestos cancer.

Asbestos-Containing Toy Prompts Lawsuit

California-based Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) is suing CBS Corporation, a toy maker, and several retailers in regards to the sale of a toy based on a popular CBS show. The toy, the organization says, contained trace amounts of asbestos.

According to a Reuters article, the ADAO says that the toy, a crime-scene kit based on the series “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” contained asbestos in a powder used to dust for fingerprints.

The manufacturer of the kits, Planet Toys Inc., removed them from the market last year because of pressure from the group but insists that multiple tests have shown no asbestos in the toy.

The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, said tests showed that the kits’ fingerprint powder contained “substantial quantities of tremolite asbestos,” which it described as “one of the most lethal forms of asbestos.” Asbestos has been deemed a known human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Exposure to the toxic mineral has been known to cause mesothelioma, an asbestos cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs.

ADAO wants Planet Toys to halt all sales of the toys unless they carry a hazardous material warning. In addition, the asbestos group believes the company should issue full refunds on any returned kits.

On its website, Planet Toys announced that it had issued a “stop sale” on all CSI fingerprint kits “until further information can be ascertained as to the discrepancy between our respective test findings.” Planet Toys has not commented on the lawsuit.

Study Touts Potential New Asbestos Drug

A drug that can help protect those who have been exposed to asbestos has resulted from a study, published in Science Magazine, which – for the first time – explains how asbestos fibers lead to the chronic lung inflammation that causes asbestosis and mesothelioma cancer.

The study was conducted by Prof. Jürg Tschopp of the University of Lausanne and colleagues in Europe and the United States, notes an article in the British newspaper The Telegraph. In the study, Tschopp and others report that the inflammation caused by asbestos fibers that are lodged in the lungs are linked to a complex of proteins, known as the Nalp3 inflammasome. This protein complex is also involved in other inflammatory diseases such as gout, which can be treated with a drug called Anakinra, the study notes.

The team of researchers now believes that the same drug might possibly be used to fight the inflammatory affects of asbestos fibers and potentially slow the symptoms of asbestosis and mesothelioma.

“Because exposure to asbestos increases not only the risk of asbestosis, but also lung cancer, mesothelioma, and other incurable cancers, this suggested new treatment is highly desirable,” says Prof. Tschopp.

He said that use of Anakinra would be used for prevention and not a cure. “Rather persons exposed to asbestos in the past and thus at high risk to get asbestosis or lung cancer could be treated with an inhibitor drug.”

Given the success of treating gout this way, “we are therefore quite optimistic that the same treatment will work for asbestosis,” Tschopp added.

Dr. Joanna Owens, Cancer Research UK senior scientific officer, said: “This important laboratory research brings us a step closer to understanding how asbestos causes the chronic inflammation that can lead to cancer.

“These results should help scientists find better ways to treat people who have been exposed to asbestos in the past. But Anakinra will need thorough testing in clinical trials before we’ll know if it’s safe and effective at preventing asbestos-related cancers.”

Widow of Refinery Worker Sues Oil Companies

The widow of a Texas refinery worker who developed malignant mesothelioma while performing job-related duties is going after two large oil companies in a lawsuit recently filed in a Jefferson County district court.

According to an account of the lawsuit outlined in the Southeast Texas Record, Gloria English is suing Texaco and Chevron USA for “maliciously” exposing William English, her husband, to asbestos. The suit was filed on April 8.

According to the plaintiff’s petition, Mr. English was employed at Texaco’s Port Arthur, Texas facility. During his employment in the labor and maintenance departments, he “used and was exposed to toxic materials including asbestos dust and fibers.”

“As a result of such exposure, William English, developed an asbestos-related disease for which he died a painful and terrible death on July 8, 2007,” the suit states.

“The Defendants knew for decades that asbestos-containing products could cause the disease of asbestosis and asbestos-related cancers and still allowed their employees …to work with and around asbestos products. The Defendants acted with malice…”

The suit also alleges that the two mega oil companies failed to warn employees of the dangers of asbestos in a timely manner or to “take the necessary engineering, safety, industrial hygiene and medical precautions.”

“As a result of the aforementioned malice and/or gross neglect of the Defendants, Plaintiffs seek claims for all elements of damages allowable under the law including exemplary damages and seek to recover from the Defendants, an amount in excess of the jurisdictional limits of this Court,” the suit says.