Asbestos Allegations at Air and Space Museum
Monday, March 16, 2009; 10:00 AM
Richard Pullman has worked for the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum for more than 27 years. As a lighting specialist, Pullman's job involves cutting into the building's walls to install and update exhibits. So when Pullman discovered last year that the museum's walls contain asbestos -- meaning routine work might put his health at risk -- he became entangled in a drawn-out dispute with Smithsonian officials over the potential dangers. Pullman, who has been diagnosed with asbestosis, alleges that workers often ignore proper construction procedures, disturbing asbestos in the museum. But Smithsonian officials contend tests do not register harmful amounts of asbestos in the air.
Washington Post staff writer James Grimaldi was online Monday, March 16, at 10 a.m. ET to discuss the dispute, which has prompted officials to launch a cleanup of the museum.
The transcript follows.
James V. Grimaldi: Good morning. I see some questions already, so let's get started.
Some of you may have heard me on NPR over the weekend, but if not, here's a link.
One of the listeners was Linda St. Thomas, spokeswoman for the Smithsonian, and she wrote me email and I told her I'd be happy to include her opinion right off the top. Here's what she said:
"I heard your interview with NPR today and you did say at the end of the piece that the air in the museum is safe. I hope you do the same tomorrow, preferably at the beginning of the session. It's really beyond 'highly unlikely' as you stated today. Visitors are not allowed to walk into construction areas--of NASM [National Air and Space Museum] or any other museum--and therefore they cannot be exposed to any potentially hazardous fibers.
"There is no reason to alarm the students or other tourists who are visiting NASM this spring, and may have visions of asbestos floating off walls and into the air they breathe. Thanks.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Isn't it the case with asbestos that it does not become a problem until it is disturbed? Also, sometimes the smaller particles can be more of a problem as they can go deeper into the lungs. Thus, wouldn't present tests indicating asbestos is not a problem mean there is no problem now as long as it is not disturbed? Yet, if it is disturbed, that is another matter.
James V. Grimaldi: That's exactly correct. Asbestos is fine as long as it is encapsulated or inert. The Smithsonian says it is using correct methods on the walls -- which would mean testing it first to make sure it does not contain joint compound with chrysotile (asbestos) before breaching, cutting or drilling into the walls, and then using "wet methods" when breaking into the walls.
Indiana, Pa.: I am incredulous that this story is just coming to light. The Smithsonian has had an office of workplace safety, staffed by industrial hygienists, for a long time. My late stepfather worked there from approximately 1983-1990 as an industrial hygienist and specialized in asbestos removal! I have contacted my brothers to find out if they kept any of his papers. But my point is that management has long known that asbestos presented a hazard to workers at the museum complex.
James V. Grimaldi: In 1992, the Smithsonian contracted a firm called Versar to survey asbestos at Air and Space.
A company was hired again recently to survey all the buildings. Spokeswoman St. Thomas said they are testing the areas done by Versar previously because some areas have undergone asbestos abatement in the intervening years. She said, "We want our information to reflect the current conditions." The Smithsonian is also doing random air testing and sampling throughout the Smithsonian's 17-building complex. She said, "The Versar study and this current test bulk samples (defined as any building material such as carpet, glue, drywall, tile, pipes, flooring, insulation, etc.) No dust is being sampled."
Dust had become an issue because whistleblower Richard Pullman secretly collected samples with an environmental engineering firm and some dust samples came back high for asbestos.
Sioux City: Aren't you really shooting fish in a barrel with your fairly regular pieces on the Smithsonian? It's an obviously way-overextended, underfunded quasi-government organization that is naturally going to be rife with problems.
Isn't the REAL story why Congress continues to order new museums built for various interest groups when clearly the Smithsonian can't take care of the buildings it already has? In what century will Arts & Industries ever reopen?
James V. Grimaldi: I'm not sure the Smithsonian is a fish. It is more like a whale. It is the largest museum complex in the world and it houses America's treasures. Millions of visitors go to the Smithsonian museums each year. It receives three-quarters of a billion dollars in federal support annually. The institution recently received an infusion in the stimulus bill, but Smithsonian managers say that, yes, indeed, there is a backlog of unfunded capitol improvements. The Smithsonian Board of Regents includes six members of the U.S. Congress -- three members from the House and three from the Senate, plus two ex officio members, the Chief Justice and Vice President of the United States, so the board is not lacking for connections in the government.
Central Virginia: Okay, there were snarls and breakdowns in communication about the asbestos in their buildings; these things happen, though they shouldn't. But how DARE the Smithsonian treat this man this way? I'm a contributor to that organization, and unless they change their tune -- and do it in a hurry -- I'm going to stop dead!
James V. Grimaldi: Richard Pullman believes the Smithsonian retaliated against him, but the institution denies the allegation. His first whistleblower complaint, filed with the Department of Labor, was dismissed. Pullman is planning to take his case to the Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that hears whistleblower claims.
Saint Charles, Ill.: You haven't even nicked into the tip of the iceberg. Asbestos is present in joint compound in homes, apartments, commercial buildings, you name it. And not just a small percentage -- I don't have any statistics, but in the 20 years I've been doing environmental work, I'll bet that 75% of joint compound samples come up as ACM. So this guy thinks he has a unique situation? Every maintenance worker at an apartment complex in the country has run into the same thing. Anyone who has scraped the textured walls in their home in order to put up wallpaper has run into it. You want a story? Go research that -- this guy's situation is just like every other Tom, Dick, and Mary maintenance or tradesman, not to mention homeowner, who worked on the sheetrock in their home. It's low level stuff that isn't that toxic. Ask him if he smokes. Makes it worse, by a factor of 10. Also, get his x-rays and have it verified. There are many quacks out there paid by lawyers to diagnose asbestos disease.
James V. Grimaldi: The Consumer Product Safety Commission banned asbestos in joint compound in 1978 because sanding or sawing into it presented a hazard of deadly airborne asbestos. [See the federal order - PDF]
The news release by the commission at the time said, "The asbestos content of a given product is not necessarily the sole criterion for that product's relative health risk. A health risk occurs when asbestos fibers become airborne and can then be inhaled. Free-form asbestos is that which is not bound or otherwise 'locked-in' to a product and, therefore, can readily become airborne.
"Consumer patching compounds are available in dry form (to be mixed with water by the user) or in a ready-mix paste form and are used to cover, seal or mask cracks, joints, holes and similar openings in the trim, walls and ceilings of building interiors. Asbestos fibers are released into the air after application, when the patching compound is sanded or scraped in the process of finishing or smoothing the surface. Asbestos may also be released into the air when the dry form of patching compound is mixed with water prior to use.
"Approximately half of all patching compounds sold contain asbestos. These products generally do not have ingredients listed on the label."
The worker in question was tasked with lighting new and updated exhibits in the museum, which prides itself on keeping its exhibits current. The worker said he repeatedly breached the compound, and he says that increased his risk for exposure, as opposed to a one-time exposure, where the danger of disease is less.
He has seen three lung doctors. One is Dr. Michael Harbut, who co-authored the American Thoracic Society's criteria for diagnosing asbestosis versus other causes of lung disease. Dr. Harbut says that smoking indeed increases your risk of getting asbestosis by up to 90-fold.
Garrett Park, Md.: I would hope that the new administration can reverse the pattern of the federal government acting like a mean private sector employer in dealing with civil servants concerned over uncontrolled exposure to asbestos. If public servants can't raise legitimate concerns over mortal occupational hazards in this country, who can?
James V. Grimaldi: Thanks for your opinion. The Smithsonian is not technically a federal agency. It is called a U.S. trust instrumentality. That's a fancy way of saying it is owned by the United States people. The Smithsonian was created after James Smithson gave his fortune "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." It also is a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization and it has both federal employees and "trust fund" employees, who often are paid salaries much higher than federal employees.
Arlington, Va.: I read this article with great interest. I worked for the Smithsonian Libraries, headquartered in the Natural History Museum, from 1978-1984. Sometime in the late 70s I remember extensive renovation in the wing where the library was housed -- and at the same time I was diagnosed with asthma. The Smithsonian had installed large plastic sheets to block off the construction area, but there was still a lot of particulate material in the air. I always wondered if my diagnosis was tied to the renovation at work -- especially since it was easier for me to breathe at home. But the damage was done. I had asthma. I'm sorry that I did not think to pursue the environmental issue at work, but I am not surprised by the Smithsonian's response to Richard Pullman.
James V. Grimaldi: Lung-related workplace injuries are very difficult to prove. It isn't as if you fell from a ladder and broke your arm -- there's a ladder, a broken arm, and concrete evidence of what happened. You cannot 100 percent diagnose asbestos in lungs without a biopsy, according to Dr. Michael Harbut, one of the leading doctors treating the disease.
Arlington, Va.: Mr. Urban's comment about bringing his 7 and 4 year old to the museum was fairly silly. The risk comes to WORKERS from disturbing the asbestos by, you know, ripping out walls. Unless there's an exhibit where 7 year olds get to play Destructo, his theory would seem to be irrelevant.
James V. Grimaldi: The story was about workers, not the public. But we thought that it was important to point out that risk to the public is extremely unlikely unless they walked into a work site. But your point is correct, that this is a story about worker safety, not museum-goers.
Richmond, Va.: It's appalling that no one told workers who would be cutting into the walls or ceilings that they might contain asbestos. Is it likely that Mr. Pullman's asbestosis will lead to cancer?
James V. Grimaldi: Mr. Pullman gave his doctor permission to talk about his most recent CT scan. Dr. Harbut and a colleague, Dr. Carmen Endress, chief of radiology at the National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos-Related Cancer, have pioneered an enhanced version of a CT scan. They believe that one nodule might be cancer and they plan to watch it closely. If it grows, it is a cause for alarm.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Just to be clear -- there are no "safe levels" of airborne asbestos fibers. OSHA and EPA do not recognize so-called maximum safe levels. Why some people who have been exposed to asbestos fibers contract asbestos-related diseases while others with identical exposures do not, is still a mystery, but even minimal exposure can cause disease in some people.
James V. Grimaldi: My research shows that this statement is accurate.
Washington, D.C.: How valid are the implications of your story -- that Air and Space Museum employees must worry about their safety -- when you only rely on the account of one employee? There must be others who work in the same spaces as this employee. What did they say?
James V. Grimaldi: Other employees confirmed that they were not informed of the 1992 report that there was asbestos in the walls.
Rockville, Md.: What is the current state of this man's health? Is anyone else there actually sick? Why is there no discussion of this in the article?
James V. Grimaldi: It is extraordinarily difficult to prove a workplace-related cause for lung disease. We have talked to other museum workers about illnesses and relatives about the deaths workers. In the end, we decided that it was difficult enough to investigate the story of Richard Pullman until we got to the point that we thought it was ready to publish.
Northern Virginia: I was shocked by the Smithsonian spokeswoman's statement that led off your discussion today. The Smithsonian clearly is extremely concerned about the health and well-being of its visitors. Good for them. That, however, is not the issue here, which is their equal if not greater responsibility toward their own workforce.
The fact that someone at the institution hears and reads your story about (alleged) mistreatment of workers and it magically morphs into "that will scare the visitors!" suggests that workers and employer responsibility are not even part of their mental world. I can't believe that is true, but it's hard to read that response any other way.
James V. Grimaldi: The safety of workers and visitors are both priorities for the Smithsonian: Email from John Benton
Alexandria, Va.: How does a person receive a diagnosis of abestosis if they haven't been exposed to asbestos? And Mr. Pullman has apparently been exposed to it in his 27 years of working at the Smithsonian. Am I missing something here?
Is NASM going to weasel out of their responsibility by venturing that Mr. Pullman somehow was exposed to it via moonlighting or working on his home?
James V. Grimaldi: We will find out more about the Smithsonian's side of the worker compensation issue when Mr. Pullman takes his case to an administrative law court at the U.S. Department of Labor.
Mechanicsville, Maryland: This is the exact same story of the tunnel workers who worked on Capitol Hill who are no longer employed and also were denied health. This is what the government does and will continue to do. Tell Mr. Pullman to get in contact with the supervisor of that group, John Thayer.
James V. Grimaldi: There are similarities. Mr. Pullman has hired the same attorney, David Marshall, who represented the tunnel workers.
Baltimore, Md.: Hi, thanks for taking my question. Mr. Pullman has asbestosis. Did he have exposure to asbestos dust other than occupationally at the Smithsonian?
James V. Grimaldi: He says he did not. He has worked at the Air and Space Museum most of his adult life. He did work for the U.S. Navy, but he did not ever work on a ship (they have a lot of asbestos) and instead worked entirely landside in the Navy.
Alexandria, Va.: Do you have any clue as to what prompted the asbestos briefing last April? Something must have happened to make them take action on a problem that Claude Russell claims had been known for years.
James V. Grimaldi: I do not know for sure, but I think it all began in 2006 when there was a sewage backup that destroyed walls in a third-floor cafeteria and a second-floor gallery. To replace those damaged walls in 2007, they hired an asbestos-abatement firm. I think some workers and supervisors began asking, "what's going on?" That's when Mr. Russell was asked to set up the asbestos-awareness class.
Alexandria, Va.: Can you address possible health implications to regular SI employees who are not involved in construction and/or exhibit redesign, but instead work in the museum in regular offices? Contractors do work in these areas, and even if they didn't, presumably the building's air handling system will transport dust from exhibit spaces to office spaces.
James V. Grimaldi: I think that is a legitimate concern.
Washington, D.C.: I do not want to seem as though I am not sympathetic to Mr. Pullman's condition, however, common sense would dictate that if you are performing any type of work on a building, even painting your house, and including cutting into the walls, you should always wear a mask. Also, I believe that the Smithsonian Institution would have explained at least that much in training courses for those who have been hired to work on the buildings. From what I have been reading about asbestos, it seems fair to assume that if Mr. Pullman had been wearing the mask while working on exhibits, his risk for inhaling the disturbed asbestos would have been far less. Is this the case?
James V. Grimaldi: Federal workplace safety regulations place an affirmative duty upon the employer to notify workers when they are disturbing asbestos-containing joint compound. It isn't the other way around. As I understand it, the culture of the museum was not to wear masks. Mr. Pullman was not directly tasked with taking down walls. He is an electrician who helps install exhibits. But he did work around employees who were taking down walls and, of course, an electrician will drill into walls from time to time to install wires, and then finish the job by resealing, repairing and sanding the installation.
James V. Grimaldi: Thanks for an interesting discussion and very good questions. Please feel free to e-mail me or my co-author Jackie Trescott directly with questions or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.