More than 60,000 federal employes in the Washington area work in buildings where asbestos, a potential carcinogen, has been found, according to a list prepared by the General Services Administration. That amounts to nearly a quarter of the workforce in GSA-controlled buildings in the area.
The 92 locations where asbestos has been found include 45 buildings where the substance is in public places or in offices, such as the press room of the White House, a conference room used by the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission and the lobby of the Environmental Protection Agency.
According to GSA statistics, 64,203 government employes work in the 45 buildings. In many of the sites, asbestos was used as a fireproofing agent or as insulation in ceilings.
"It is our considered opinion," said GSA Regional Public Buildings Commissioner James G. Whitlock, "that there is no danger to federal employes. As long as the asbestos is undisturbed--and we test when we are disturbing it--then they are in no danger."
Whitlock said GSA is pursuing "an aggressive program" of identifying, testing, monitoring and correcting the asbestos problems. GSA officials point out that in many buildings, the asbestos has been found in areas not generally accessible to employes and visitors, such as basements and attics.
But some union officials who represent workers in the affected buildings question the safety standards being applied by GSA and the effectiveness of the agency's abatement program.
Asbestos has been banned in buildings since 1976 and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has regulated the number of airborne, glass-like, microscopic fibers of asbestos allowed in industrial workplaces.
That OSHA standard is used for office-exposure-limits as well, but is not designed to assess any possible latent danger from damaged, deteriorated or flaking asbestos on walls, pipes, ceilings or structural beams. Some federal workers' union officials say the standard is too lenient.
In addition, an advisory panel to the Consumer Product Safety Commission said this month there is no evidence that a "minimum exposure" to asbestos is safe.
"At this point, GSA does not have a responsible program," said Neil Davis, national industrial hygienist for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). "It is a rather sporadic response to crisis. It is not controlled, it is not an enforced program and it is not moving."
O.R. (Russ) Maisch, GSA's national safety director, said workers need only be concerned about airborne asbestos.
But Peter Gillson, regional GSA safety supervisor, sides with the union: "I care about asbestos that's not airborne. If you got it in there, then it will become airborne. I'm concerned about the stuff that's up there."
While acknowledging problems in the buildings, GSA building and safety officials say that funds are now available only for four projects. Regional GSA Administrator William F. Madison has asked for $608,000 in funding for the next six most critical abatement projects. Abatement can involve encapsulation sealing with paints or plastics , covering or removal of the asbestos.
The four projects currently under way are: a $400,000 removal project at the General Accounting Office; a $250,000 project at the Wiscon Building Garage in Bethesda; a $50,000 encapsulation project at the Naval Intelligence Command building in Suitland; and a $17,000 project at the Auditors building at 14th Street and Independence Avenue SW.
Most of the requested new funding--$250,000--would be spent at the Tariff Building, 701 E St. NW, to repair damaged asbestos pipe insulation in International Trade Commission (ITC) offices and to remove asbestos insulation in the basement.
ITC administration director Loren L. Goodrich said he thought there are no dangers to the agency's employes "at this point, because the problem is confined to our basement, which does not have a great deal of people-traffic through it."
Other projects slated for the new funding are: encapsulating damaged asbestos insulation in the attic of the Commerce Department headquarters at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW ($125,000); removing asbestos insulating material from a computer room at CIA headquarters in McLean ($90,000); encapsulating exposed asbestos insulation in the garage of the New Executive Office Building ($50,000); removing or encasing exposed asbestos fireproofing in the clerk's office at the U.S. Court of Claims ($48,000); and removing asbestos from entrance lobbies at a Navy building in Arlington near the Pentagon ($45,000).
Daniel W. Hope, regional GSA director of building management, sent the list including the 78 buildings to all agency officials with a responsibility for repair and alteration work. GSA operates 463 U.S.-owned or -leased buildings in the area housing 271,891 government employes.
"What we're saying in this list is to check with . . . someone knowledgeable before you start tearing out the ceiling," Whitlock said. "We have an active and aggressive program designed to prevent situations from becoming problems."
"The most important thing to do is in many circumstances is to do nothing," Maisch said. "Just leave it alone, there's nothing wrong with it."
Maisch said he believes GSA can handle the abatement problems nationwide "without a lot of emotional fanfare, without a lot of wasted taxpayer dollars, and we can do it in a timely manner where it needs to be done."
Regional GSA safety chief James A. Hawkins added: "There is an existent problem, but it's minimal. Most of the asbestos is pipe-covering on areas inaccessible to the general public or building occupants."
AFGE's Davis contends, however, that there could be problems even if airborne tests turn up with levels below what he calls the "soft" national standard.
Davis said federal employes regularly complain to the union about health and safety concerns, and said it may take an executive order from President Reagan to press federal agencies to cooperate with each other to set tougher standards.
"We believe there is no safe level of asbestos," Davis said. "If you have asbestos on the walls and not in the air, it is still going to eventually get into people's lungs as it deteriorates and becomes airborne."
Davis suggested that GSA look into using EPA guidelines for schools as a standard to protect government workers because those guidelines assess the potential dangers from asbestos.
"Amongst the scientific community--from Yale to the Environmental Protection Agency--there is much confusion over asbestos standards," said GSA safety supervisor Gillson. "Air monitoring is not a good determination of asbestos. There is no perfect sampling technique . . . a lot of it is a judgment factor."