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Greg Webb
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Asbestos Problem In Washington’s National Museum of American History

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According to members of the Steamfitters Union, Local 602, in 2007 asbestos dust filled the air of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC because contractors continuously failed to take legally required precautions while removing insulation. While the museum was closed to the public at the time, the museum’s full-time staff of employees and curators continued working in the building. A Smithsonian spokeswoman says that as soon as the safety workers found the problems, they immediately corrected procedures and turned off fans.

A representative of Steamfitters Local 602 claimed that on at least one occasion, it took days before procedures were corrected and implemented by the general contractor, Turner Construction. He said workers broke up asbestos-insulated pipes without wearing the protective clothing required or posting appropriate signs. When the dust became airborne, the air circulation equipment continued to operate, which made the dust carry throughout the museum. Employees said they knew of the asbestos, however, they did not know it had become airborne, nor did they know it was a life-threatening hazard that required action.

Last month, it was reported that officials at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space museum knew for seventeen years about asbestos covering wall joints but did not tell workers. Richard Pullman, an electrician and exhibit specialist at the museum who works with walls, has been diagnosed with asbestosis, a progressive lung disease that happens due to breathing asbestos fibers. He has since filed a Whistleblower Protection Act complaint. The House Administration Committee Chairman has scheduled a hearing about the asbestos in the museum; however, the hearing is being criticized for not inviting workers to testify.

A subcontractor on the project said the asbestos-laced piping insulation was torn up and released into the air before they were able to check. When they did check, however, asbestos was found. One worker was incorrectly told that an area was free of asbestos and according to the Smithsonian spokeswoman, when the site was inspected and asbestos was found, the project was shut down and the worker who gave the wrong information was let go. Fans were removed and the air samples proved there were no more hazards. It is unclear whether or not the contractors were told in advance about the asbestos in the museum.

My firm represents thousands of former workers, and some of their family members who were exposed from the dust of the workers’ clothing (sometimes called "household exposure" or "second-hand exposure), for asbestos-related illnesses. Many manufacturers of asbestos-containing products knew of the hazards of asbestos as early as 1929 (if not before). Until the mid-1970’s (when OSHA became law), most of the manufacturers failed to warn their own employees making the products, failed to warn those selling the products, failed to warn those installing the products, and failed to warn those using the products (among other failings). This was because asbestos was part of a profit-making machine. Hundreds of thousands of people have died prematurely and unnecessarily because of asbestos exposure. Asbestos used to be in many building and manufacturing materials (insulation, gaskets, packing, tile, flooring, wall-board, fire-brick, and on and on). The asbestos story in the United States is a shameful one.