Senate Dodges Asbestos Scare

Posted July 7, 2004 at 6:29pm

In a closed-door briefing Wednesday, Senate officials reported that individuals in the Senate Cloakroom and press galleries could hypothetically have been exposed to airborne asbestos for roughly three hours on Tuesday, but added that follow-up tests conducted after the chamber’s closing revealed that the toxic substance was not present.

Senate officials initially ordered individuals to leave the areas in question at about 1 p.m. Tuesday, after concerns arose after an inspection Monday had inadvertently left auxiliary portions of the chamber’s ventilation system unchecked for asbestos.

On Sunday, inspectors found a chunk of asbestos-containing material that had been dislodged during maintenance operations and fallen into a primary ventilation duct leading to the chamber. After detecting hazardous particle levels in the chamber, abatement teams subsequently worked to clean all rooms of the substance.

But officials in the Architect of the Capitol’s office learned Tuesday that inspectors had neglected “certain auxiliary booster ducts” that also feed air into the Senate Cloakroom and press galleries, officials said. After realizing that, a second round of inspections was made, which yielded no additional samples of asbestos in the neglected ducts or the chamber.

Eva Malecki, spokeswoman for the Architect’s office, would not comment on any previous asbestos findings and said she did not know who was responsible for the inspection oversights.

“We always try to follow and enforce a strict set of plans and procedures to minimize the health risks of asbestos to people in the Capitol,” she said Wednesday. “We will continue sticking to these procedures.”

Such procedures often include conducting internal maintenance and construction projects during recesses and weekends, when the risk of dislodging asbestos particles in close vicinity to Members and staff is at a minimum.

Asbestos is present in floor tiles, ceiling panels, and wall cementing at numerous locations throughout the Capitol and Congressional office buildings, but it generally exists in a non-hazardous “enclosed” form, said Stephen Mallinger, spokesman for the Office of Compliance. Only when asbestos-containing materials are broken or dislodged, thus releasing its toxic particles into the air, do these materials pose a health risk.

Asbestos is associated with serious lung ailments, including a form of cancer called mesothelioma.

Malecki said the Architect’s office has conducted ongoing surveys to evaluate the prevalence of asbestos on the Capitol campus. But Mallinger, who oversees investigations of possible health-code violations on the Hill, said he has come across several areas that contain asbestos particles — usually “enclosed” and presumably non-threatening — that were never sampled in these surveys.

“We’ve written a number of reports for asbestos findings in the past several years but have never issued a written citation” for such a violation, he said. “In part, that’s due to the speed with which the Architect’s office has responded to any asbestos problem in and around the Capitol.”

Last August, seven workers renovating floor tiles in the Cannon House Office Building found asbestos. The Architect’s office offered physicals to the workers.