By ESTHER A. NGUONLY, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - John Thayer, a pipe-fitter welder for the Architect of the Capitol from Mechanicsville, faces six or seven hours a day of conditions where asbestos levels reach 30 or 40 times the legal limit.
"They don't even let their dogs in there," Thayer said of the Capitol Police about the tunnels under the Capitol where the asbestos that lines the pipes and composes the ceiling tiles decays in the high-pressure steam.
"It's an entombed environment," Thayer said, where temperatures rise up to 160 degrees. "I haven't had a police officer go in in 22 years."
Thayer, 42, took the lead for the 10-man tunnel crew he supervises, seven of whom are from Maryland, in testimony before the Senate Committee on Health Education Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety Thursday. It's the first time he's been able to testify about the conditions at the Capitol.
The committee is investigating the problem as part of legislation from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to ban asbestos products and to broaden research for diseases resulting from asbestos exposure.
Thayer said later when an alarm goes off in the tunnels, the Capitol Police call him. He's been told their officers will not enter the tunnel for a rescue, but only to recover bodies after an emergency.
Asbestos is a mineral, often fibrous, that is used commonly for heat-resistance in brake linings, roof coating and ship-building. Daily exposure to asbestos has led to deaths and illnesses for many workers nationwide, including among members of his crew, who spend more hours underground than he does.
For more than 20 years, until they were mandated in April 2006, Thayer worked in the tunnels without wearing a respirator.
In 1998, Thayer saw tunnels underneath the Capitol building collapsing, including a 620-foot section that caused the ground to cave in and release 100-year-old asbestos into the air.
Thayer has asbestosis, the disease that results when asbestos fibers lodge in the lungs. He is undergoing treatment, as are nine members of his team for similar asbestos-related health problems.
The hazardous substance can lead to permanent lung damage and fatal illnesses such as cancer and mesothelioma, which kills most patients within one year of being diagnosed.
"If workers at the heart of the U.S. government are being put at risk, then imagine what it must be like for the millions of unseen workers in the private industry," Thayer said.
Thayer and his team's asbestos-related health problems aren't covered by their insurance. They've had to pay for all their care on their own. In fact, the doctors paid for by their employer cleared them to work, so they had to receive a diagnosis from an out-of-state doctor. They're now asking for compensation for their health costs and inspection of the facilities.
"All we ever want to do is come to work and be a federal employee and collect for retirement," said Thayer in an interview after the hearing. "Now we're in a legal fight of our life."
Asbestos is still legal in the United States, and contained in many brake products imported from countries in which it is legal as well.
Many countries worldwide have banned asbestos, including Australia, Argentina, Saudi Arabia and throughout the European Union. The Environmental Protection Agency attempted to ban it in 1989, but failed to do so.
Using asbestos for heat resistance is no longer necessary and must be banned in manufacturing and importation, testified Barry Castleman, an environmental consultant from Garrett Park.
"Cars still stop, roofs don't leak . . . life goes on without the use of asbestos products," said Castleman.
While use of asbestos in roofing materials has been cut to 2000 tons per year domestically, a huge problem still remains of imported materials coming in from Brazil, China, Columbia, Mexico and other countries which use it in production, said Castleman.
Those products are sold locally in auto stores such as Ace Hardware stores. Murray, held up two products during the hearing that contained asbestos that she had acquired within the last two weeks from local stores.
The danger of large-scale asbestos poisoning to building workers in Maryland is much less of a threat than it used to be because of stricter regulations governing emergency response and employer accountability, said Jim Fite, assistant to the director of plant facilities of Cecil County Public Schools and founding member of White Lung.
However, the problem is much more localized, and exposure affects many in their own homes. Homes built before 1980 often contain various levels of asbestos in their foundations, such as roofing, tiles and dry wall.
Old houses with white shingles that look like thin, chalky stone are usually made of a mix of cement and asbestos, Fite said. Cutting into them for remodeling or repairs exposes residents to danger.
"It's an example of the past pollution of society that (is) unregulated now," said Fite.
He and his men in the tunnel crew are battling to save their jobs, as well as their lives, Thayer said. If officials find out that they have a medical condition that could prevent them from doing their job, it is grounds for termination.
"It's an example of a white-collar against blue-collar fight," said Thayer. "They don't even want to talk to us like human beings . . . But as long as we keep steam running and chilled water, everyone's happy."