Smithsonian and 27-Year Employee in Battle Over Asbestos
Staffer Has Disease; Museum Defends Safety
Sunday, March 15, 2009; Page A01
A year ago, the National Air and Space Museum gathered a group of workers for a safety briefing on "asbestos awareness." Nearly 45 minutes into the session, the museum's safety coordinator said something that Richard Pullman thought at first he'd misheard: There was asbestos in the museum walls.
Pullman, a 53-year-old lighting specialist, had worked in the building for 27 years, frequently cutting into interior walls to install and update artifacts at one of the world's most visited museums.
"Are you telling us that I've been working with this stuff for that long, drilling into these walls, sawing and sanding, unprotected?" Pullman recalls asking. "Why didn't you guys say anything?"
Within weeks, Pullman had gathered internal documents and filed federal workplace safety complaints. And because he'd been experiencing shortness of breath, he went to see a lung doctor, who diagnosed asbestosis, a lung disease linked to breathing asbestos fibers.
Pullman and the museum are now engaged in a dispute about the danger posed by asbestos dust in the building. Smithsonian Institution officials acknowledge the presence of asbestos but say their tests show there is nothing harmful in the air. As a precaution, the museum spent $27,000 to clean up 11 areas in five galleries, officials said.
Industrial hygienists who reviewed the tests told The Washington Post that the greatest risk of exposure is to workers who did not wear protective gear. For visitors to the museum, exposure would be extremely unlikely unless they walked into a work area after walls were sanded or cut.
Managers have known for 17 years that wall seams at the 33-year-old museum on the Mall had been smoothed over with spackling containing levels of asbestos that would trigger worker-safety rules. A consultant's report commissioned by the Smithsonian, which runs the museum, determined the material would be harmless if undisturbed. The report urged that workers be alerted.
But that rarely occurred.
"There were many staff changes and organizational changes," Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said, "and the information from the . . . report was not passed along over the years."
John F. Benton II, the museum's associate director of management and public programs, said in a statement that museum officials took steps last year to "provide the most current training and equipment to affected employees to mitigate any potential hazards."
But Pullman contends that years of work left a buildup of fine-particle asbestos dust behind the walls and in false ceilings. Last October, Pullman spent thousands of dollars to hire an environmental engineer to secretly collect and test samples. The results indicated that asbestos had been mishandled, which "likely resulted in exposures to workers and the public," according to the engineer, J. Brent Kynoch.
A Smithsonian lawyer said in a letter to Pullman's attorney that the samples tested by Kynoch were "wrongly acquired" and that there is no proof the dust ever endangered anyone. St. Thomas said the dust was removed this month because the museum's safety office wanted to be "extraordinarily cautious" and prevent the dust from becoming airborne.