A District health and safety agency report says federal employes in the old Washington Star Building at 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW may be exposed to high amounts of potentially carcinogenic airborne asbestos particles whenever workmen disturb ceiling panels in their offices.
The tiny, often microscopic, sharp-fibered particles can cause cancer or respiratory diseases when inhaled.
Dr. Herbert T. Wood, a public health adviser with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, said Saturday he was asked to study asbestos dangers in the building by the Justice Department, the primary federal tenant in the leased building.
Employes had expressed fears about asbestos to their supervisors after work crews had removed dropped ceiling panels for maintenance and other work.
In his report, which has been sent to the Justice Department, Wood said he was "recommending that the rooms where workmen disturb ceiling panels be cleared of employes" and that "they should not be allowed back until the room is cleaned with an approved industrial vacuum cleaner and the work is finished."
Regional Public Buildings Commissioner James G. Whitlock said Saturday that a safety team would be in the building today in response to the employes' concern and the District's report, which Whitlock said he had not seen.
Whitlock, who works for the General Services Administration, is responsible for leasing federal office space in this area and maintaining the buildings. The Star building is also occupied by about 60 Federal Trade Commission employes and has a 20-person military recruiting office on the ground floor. Approximately 500 Justice employes work in the building.
"The best thing we can do in response to that report and the problem is to show that we have an active abatement program and that we'll take whatever steps that are necessary to protect the health and safety of the employes," Whitlock said.
Whitlock, and two of his safety experts, agreed with Wood on one key point: if the asbestos hidden behind the dropped ceiling panels isn't disturbed, there's no danger.
But, Wood said, "at the Star Building a lot of work is being done above the ceilings panels . . . there's pipe work and workmen pulling wires for computer systems." Peter Gillson, the regional GSA safety supervisor, said there was no "scheduled" maintenance work allowed in the building without proper environmental precautions. Except for emergency maintenance to "keep the building running," Whitlock said, he would try to halt all activity in the ceiling panels.
"As soon as I picked up the false ceiling panels , there were globs of asbestos falling into the air," Wood said of his study of the three top floors of the building. "It was like everyone and his brother had been up there disturbing that space at one time or another." Wood said workmen, for their own protection, should be required to wear asbestos-proof suits and respirators.
Wood said that the asbestos was "applied poorly, so that it never hardened. It easily flaked and got into the air when it was touched."
The Star Building is supposed to be evacuated and renovated commercially as part of the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor redevelopment project.
GSA is planning space in the New Post Office building for the Justice employes. They are now set to move at the end of this year. FTC and military employes are also being relocated, but GSA hasn't decided where.