When you think about NASA, our country’s flagship space program, you think about rockets blasting off, and spacemen roving the moon in logoed suits. But recent news links the space agency to something very different – asbestos risk. Instead of launching a groundbreaking outer space exploration program, NASA leaders are looking into potential asbestos exposure at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The NASA campus, which houses several thousand NASA workers and contractors, is an inspirational place, and one where some ground-breaking science takes place.
Take a tour of the JPL, and you’ll see moon rovers sitting in the corners of buildings, teams scanning massive visual data displays, and resources for tackling some of the world’s biggest problems. There’s a whole building dedicated to “Climate Sciences.” Large warehouse spaces provide room for building prototypes or displaying some of the old equipment that NASA used in prior decades. All of it gives the campus a real sense of wonder.
But even places like this are not immune from the threat of airborne asbestos. Local papers revealed Dec. 18 that on the third floor of JPL building 230, monitors got 2 readings of asbestos levels in the air that exceeded existing EPA limits and OSHA regulations.
The Dangers of Crumbling Asbestos Spray
What’s causing regulators to look at NASA buildings? Part of the problem is a spray-on solution that coats roof and ceiling structures in some parts of the JPL campus. This spray-on solution contained asbestos.
One of the biggest questions professionals face in identifying asbestos hazard is whether asbestos-containing products are “friable” – that is, whether little pieces will break off and possibly release fibers into the air over time. Asbestos is extremely dangerous when it is airborne, which is why it’s so important not to grind, sand, tear, or otherwise disturb items that contain asbestos. But there’s little else that’s more friable than spray compounds that can disintegrate over time. As a spray, the material is uncontained by anything other than hardening or chemical processes. With age, this material requires a lot of caution.
Reports on the recent handling of asbestos at the lab show that asbestos-containing materials are in place in eleven buildings across the campus, and that hundreds of workers could have been exposed. Due to quick response and safety precautions, however, experts are saying that only 4 employees actually risked exposure. That containment of risk was partially because NASA worked immediately to get its people away from asbestos.
“The floor was immediately closed,” said Veronica McGregor, the JPL’s News and Social Media Manager. “The 4 employees who had offices on the floor were relocated and the area was cleaned.”
Asbestos Problems Defy Easy Answers: In-Depth Planning is a Must
What the case at NASA also shows us is that asbestos investigations don’t usually have easy answers. When there is an asbestos scare, many questions crop up, such as how asbestos was and should be handled in buildings, who knew about problems when, and whether the right planning tools were in place.
At NASA, at least there were rules in place for contractors. These included important procedures for asbestos notification, partly to prevent the kinds of improper demolition or renovations that can be so frightening when they are done wrong.
Still, safety advocates might have some questions about how risks were addressed in the past. Dig into a 2010 CAL OSHA report on NASA’s JPL, and you’ll see statements like this:
“The JPL Occupational Safety Office’s budget management process was ineffective in measuring performance for construction safety-related functions such as confined space entry, asbestos and lead abatement, fall protection, and construction drawing reviews.”
The report also suggests thin resources, such as 2 safety specialists handling 7 different risk categories.
All of this goes to show that it takes more than a passing interest in environmental safety or a minimal reading of EPA laws to really get a handle on asbestos management. That’s why asbestos issues continue to be such a big concern in American homes, in commercial buildings, and even in places like schools and hospitals, or even in the U.S. Capitol building, where a 2015 incident required closing some parts of the property.
Look for asbestos dangers in your community, and know the risks – it could help save lives.