The Cannon House Office Building in Washington D.C. was shut down on Friday, October 30th due to what’s being called “an asbestos scare.” During a much-needed renovation of the 108-year-old building, an unspecified "potential asbestos release" occurred. Official reports said that industrial hygienists were conducting a "rigorous air sampling analysis" throughout Saturday and that the space was safe to reopen by 11:18 pm the following day. As of yet, nobody was hurt on the job.
The Potential for Asbestos Exposure during the Cannon Building Renewal Project
The Architect of the Capitol (AOC) has not yet provided information on whether any people were exposed, but about 124 members of the House of Representatives have an office in the Cannon Building. We, and a number of other entities, have reached out to the AOC for comment, but have been unsuccessful in receiving a comment. A writer for Hill Blotter, a blog that covers developments on Capitol Hill, echoed a similar sentiment in an article posted on the 2nd of November. The office did provide updates on their website as the investigation was being conducted, but details were, and remain, vague.
This incident comes about a year after a previous asbestos scare in July of 2014. Last year, an accident occurred while AOC employees were removing asbestos-containing insulation and fibers were released into the side of the Capitol Building which contains the U.S. House of Representatives. During that incident, Capitol Police officers were not warned about the exposure risks when they were dispatched to the scene and some officers openly considered taking legal action.
During the 2014 incident the AOC did not offer information to the public on if and how many people were exposed, despite multiple requests from news agencies and union leaders.
Asbestos Scares in the Capitol: A Common Occurrence?
Unfortunately for D.C., the area surrounding the Capitol Building is no stranger to severe asbestos emergencies. In 2000, asbestos was discovered in the vast, underground network of tunnels beneath the building. John Thayer, a pipe-welder who led a 10-man team to repair the tunnels, worked for 20 years without any protection from the fibers. He now suffers from asbestosis. Commenting on the danger of certain areas in and beneath the Capitol Building, Thayer said, “[the police] don’t even let their dogs in there” for fear of immediate and lethal asbestos exposure.
It took the government 13 years to finally offer Thayer and the remaining team members compensation, and that was after they waged a bitter legal battle. Long before a settlement was reached, the workers were harassed for speaking up about the dangers they faced.
Present Outlook: Asbestos in Our Capitol Is an On-Going Problem
Hopefully the situation in the Cannon Office Building doesn’t hurt anybody else. The renovation and repair of older buildings presents an enormous risk to the contractors and skilled laborers who must spend hours carefully removing ceiling tiles and pieces of sheet rock to do their jobs. It is especially dangerous to the first responders who are often sent to these locations under-equipped to protect themselves against exposure.
This incident also shows that the threat of asbestos is enough to shut down a major government facility for nearly 2 days, yet these same conditions are faced at job sites and in public institutions all over the country. Thayer himself put it best when he said, “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 the private industry.” This is unfortunately all too true and will continue to be an issue until regulations are changed.
Asbestos abatement has been a major problem on Capitol Hill for years, and it is clear that the threat of exposure will not be disappearing any time soon. If an asbestos exposure scare has already occurred during Phase 0 of the Cannon Renewal Project, it can be assumed that it will only be a matter of time before the public hears about another issue. Hopefully the AOC takes this opportunity to evaluate what went wrong — and why — so that they can implement significant changes that will keep people safe.