Deteriorating asbestos materials--so potentially dangerous that officials say they should be immediately removed--were discovered in 20 of 56 Los Angeles County government buildings inspected last spring as part of a state survey to determine the safety of California’s public facilities.
“Emergency” conditions that could expose workers or the public to cancer-causing asbestos fibers existed at 10 county facilities, including three medical centers, two sheriff’s stations and the county school headquarters, according to state inspection reports released to the county in June.
In another 10 buildings, the possibility that workers could inhale airborne asbestos fibers from old, damaged insulation and from brittle fire retardants on ceilings and steel building frames also prompted state inspectors to recommend immediate action.
Three and a half months later, however, the county has not removed asbestos from any of the 20 buildings, officials said. Nor have they kept workers away from the damaged asbestos or posted signs to warn of the danger, the county officials acknowledged.
“We decided we simply did not have the monetary resources to get the work done (with private contractors),” said Jim Abbott, senior deputy director of the county Facilities Management Department.
An alternate plan to use specially trained county workers to remove the brittle or damaged material has been stalled because state licenses required for the work have not been issued, Abbott said.
“So this didn’t happen because of neglect,” he said. “We assumed the (licensing) would be a timely process.”
Top facility managers met Monday to decide how to close off the potentially dangerous areas until money--an estimated $400,000 for the 20 buildings--can be found to correct immediate problems, Abbott said. Affected areas, mostly non-public boiler or mechanical rooms, will be locked and signs posted this week, he said.
Intent of Letter
County officials noted that the state Department of Health Services report, while recommending immediate action, was not a cleanup order. A cover letter from the state urged the county to verify the survey’s findings before implementing the recommendations.
But representatives of the largest county employee organization, Service Employees International Union, criticized the county for not responding more quickly and for not conducting its own asbestos survey of all 4,500 county buildings.
“The county just doesn’t want to deal with asbestos because it’s a very big problem. This is an issue we’re very, very concerned about. There are problems throughout the county,” said Judith Serlin, who investigates worker complaints for the service union’s Local 660, which represents about 40,000 county workers. “These problems have been documented for years and years and years,” she said.
No comprehensive study of county facilities for asbestos hazards has been done because of cost, said Heyward B. Allen, chief deputy to acting Facilities Management Director William F. Stewart.
“We have too many facilities and too many programs that are all prioritized,” Allen said. “There’s just too many programs vying for the same dollars. . . .” If all county buildings were to be checked--not just the small sampling done by the state--"you’re talking about a few million dollars,” Allen said.
Once serious asbestos problems are discovered, state and federal worker safety laws require that they be corrected, a spokesman for Cal/OSHA, the state job safety agency, said. The Department of Health Services survey--still under way statewide on 267 city, county and state buildings--was mandated by the Legislature in 1986 to determine whether asbestos poses a health hazard in California’s more than 40,000 public buildings.
The survey, designed to sample the condition of asbestos in different types of buildings of varying ages, will test facilities in about 30 counties and 80 cities, state spokesmen said.
Asbestos inspections at all elementary and secondary schools are already required nationwide. And both the Legislature and Congress are considering bills that would require inspection of all public facilities.
Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles), who authored the survey bill, called the Los Angeles County findings “alarming” and said he will introduce a bill mandating full asbestos inspections if similar conditions are discovered statewide.
“If these numbers hold up, it would be absolutely indefensible to do anything other than a mandatory inspection program,” Margolin said.
Results from the state survey indicate asbestos problems in Los Angeles city as well as county government buildings.
State inspectors inspected 13 city facilities and found what it considered emergency conditions at the Van Nuys and the 77th Street police stations. Immediate removal of a small amount of asbestos at the Cahuenga Library on Santa Monica Boulevard was also recommended. Phased removal was recommended in another four buildings.
City officials said on Friday that they had not received the state survey. But after checking further they said a mid-level General Services Department manager received the survey results June 30 and filed them without taking action. City inspectors were checking Monday to verify the problems identified by the state and to decide how to correct them, officials said.
Los Angeles has inspected all 300 of its large public buildings for asbestos problems, but received its consultant’s report only last week and has not yet responded, said Brookes Treidler, assistant general manager of the General Services Department. About 1,000 more buildings, most for storage and maintenance, have not been inspected, he said.
Los Angeles is one of only a few cities and counties statewide that have tested their facilities for asbestos hazards, said Charles Redinger, the consultant conducting the state survey.
Ducking the Issue
“I think there’s still a certain ostrich syndrome going on, not just with (the) county, but with all building owners,” because of the cost of correcting the problem, Redinger said. “It doesn’t appear that Los Angeles County is an oddball on that.”
Asbestos, strong and fire-resistant, was once dubbed “the magic mineral” for its more than 1,000 industrial uses, and millions of tons of the fiber were placed in buildings over three decades.
But since the 1970s, asbestos materials generally have not been installed as insulators and fire retardants in homes, offices and businesses as the danger of the fiber has become widely known.
In 1986, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that asbestos dust annually causes from 3,300 to 12,000 new cancer cases, nearly all of them fatal within five years of discovery and most of them among workers exposed to the material on the job.
Scientists generally agree that the chances of getting lung cancer from asbestos increase with a person’s length and level of exposure to it. The vast majority of asbestos-related cancer cases have been among workers who regularly handle the fibers.
But some researchers insist that no amount of exposure is safe, since a single asbestos fiber has a chance, though remote, of causing cancer or other often-fatal respiratory diseases.
Installation and removal of asbestos are strictly regulated by both federal and state law, with respirators and protective clothing required. (Asbestos material is still used, for example, in roof and floor tiles, where it poses no danger).
But without a building survey identifying the location of asbestos, maintenance workers often do not know when they are brushing up against it, say representatives of service union locals, which have filed numerous asbestos-related complaints during the last decade.
Workers have complained not only about the existence of asbestos in their offices but about sloppy removal of asbestos in county buildings and of poor training on how to work safely around it, state documents show.
A number of county maintenance workers have filed for disability insurance, claiming injury due to long-term exposure to asbestos, said the union’s Serlin and attorney Randall Schwartz, whose Los Angeles firm represents several of the workers.
Custodian Wins Benefits
Schwartz said he argued one case where the county agreed to pay disability benefits to a former custodian at the county Museum of Art after a neutral physician concluded that the man’s lung cancer was caused by asbestos exposure on the job.
Abbott acknowledged that the county has no formal training program for workers in the Facilities Management Department, which is responsible for maintenance of most county buildings.
Carpenters, electricians and maintenance men often get their training through informal “tailgate meetings” after problems have been discovered, he said. A formal training program was ordered several months ago by top county administrators but has not yet been implemented, he said.
Dr. Steven Hayward, who as director of the state health services’ indoor air quality laboratory is overseeing the state survey, said he worries most about untrained workers who regularly come in contact with asbestos.
“That’s why it’s very important that any building owner have proper training for maintenance people,” Hayward said.
The EPA reported this year that an estimated 20% of the nation’s 3.6 million public and commercial buildings contain some potentially dangerous “friable” asbestos, which will readily crumble under pressure.
TROUBLE WITH ASBESTOS
Here are the 20 Los Angeles County government buildings where, according to a state survey, asbestos residue has deteriorated to the stage where a serious health hazard exists for workers and, in some cases, the general public. EMERGENCY ACTION RECOMMENDED LOCATION Altadena Sheriff Station 3565 N. El Molina Ave. Altadena PROBLEM Friable asbestos, which crumbles when touched, discovered in basement room where air conditioning unit is located. COST TO REMOVE $500 for emergency removal; $13,800 for recommended phased removal. LOCATION Department of Public Social Services 2707 S. Grand Ave. Los Angeles PROBLEM Pipe and tank insulation in boiler and mechanical rooms is in poor condition. “Due to its location this material poses a significant health hazard as the insulation is occasionally located in an air stream.” COST TO REMOVE $160,000 for emergency removal; $64,000 for phased removal. LOCATION Olive View Medical Center, Building 107 14445 Olive View Dr. Sylmar PROBLEM Pipe insulation in floor crawl space is “severely deteriorated” and debris is spread throughout 30-square-foot area. No one should enter area again “for any type of work” until cleanup is done. COST TO REMOVE none LOCATION Department of Public Social Services Headquarters Media Studios 3401 N. Rio Hondo Ave. El Monte PROBLEM Pipe insulation in Penthouse is “very friable and damaged in several areas. This poses a significant health hazard as the pipe is located in an active air circulation area which could result in distribution of asbestos fibers throughout the building.” COST TO REMOVE $2,200 for emergency removal; $7,000 for phased removal. LOCATION Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center, Building 307 7601 E. Imperial Highway Downey PROBLEM About 800 feet of “severely damaged” pipe insulation in crawl space under building. Damaged floor tile cement in janitor’s closet should be removed. COST TO REMOVE $44,000 for emergency; $1,000 for other immediate removal. LOCATION Torrance X-ray Building 1000 W. Carson St. Torrance PROBLEM More than 1,000 feet of pipe insulation in floor crawl space is severely damaged and is an emergency concern. Pipe insulation in dark room is also “significantly damaged” and should be immediately removed. COST TO REMOVE $9,350 for emergency removal; $350 for immediate removal; and $3,550 for phased. LOCATION UCLA Harbor Medical Center Laboratory Building C-1A 1000 W. Carson St. Torrance PROBLEM Severely damaged pipe insulation and debris, 60% to 70% asbestos, is exposed to air in 1,000-foot crawl space. COST TO REMOVE $38,000 for emergency removal; $250 for phased removal. LOCATION Los Angeles County Education Headquarters 9300 E. Imperial Highway Downey PROBLEM Exposed pipe insulation and insulation glue in closet, boiler room and mechanical room are all damaged and need emergency removal, replacement or repair. COST TO REMOVE $5,500 for emergency removal; $16,300 for phased removal. LOCATION Lakewood Sheriff Station 5130 S. Clark St. Lakewood PROBLEM Exposed asbestos debris in mechanical room damaged as is nearby pipe insulation. COST TO REMOVE $500 for emergency removal; $6,300 for phased removal. LOCATION Diamond Bar Golf Course Clubhouse 22751 Golden Springs Dr. Diamond Bar PROBLEM “Boiler tank insulation in East Mechanical Room is severely damaged, resulting in hazardous asbestos debris.” COST TO REMOVE $15,120 for emergency removal. IMMEDIATE ACTION RECOMMENDED LOCATION Los Angeles County Fire Station No. 62 4349 N. Padua Ave. Claremont PROBLEM Pipe insulation in restroom ceiling is “very friable” and damaged. It is located at only access to area above ceiling in the building. “Previous disturbance of this area was noticed. Further disturbance of the exposed insulation will cause high concentration of asbestos fibers to spread throughout the facility.” COST TO REMOVE $2,800 for immediate removal. LOCATION Harbor Health Center 122 W. 8th St. San Pedro PROBLEM Pipe and tank insulation in mechanical room is “very friable and severely damaged” in several places. Insulation is in area sometimes occupied. “Any disturbance could result in the distribution of asbestos fibers throughout the building.” COST TO REMOVE $6,000 for immediate removal; $1,800 for phased removal LOCATION Los Cerritos Municipal Court/District Attorney 10035 E. Flower St. Bellflower PROBLEM 1,200 square feet of ceiling tiles in courtroom are 10% asbestos and water damaged. COST TO REMOVE $13,000 for immediate removal. LOCATION Monrovia Health Center 330 W. Maple Monrovia PROBLEM Severely damaged pipe insulation in mechanical room should be removed immediately. COST TO REMOVE $2,000 for immediate removal; $8,000 for phased removal. LOCATION Harbor UCLA Medical Center, Building D-6 Children’s Outpatient Clinic 100 W. Carson St. Torrance PROBLEM This former World War II barracks sits on pilings, so debris from “old, deteriorated pipe runs and elbows” beneath it fall to the ground and can blow into outside air. COST TO REMOVE $31,000 for immediate removal. LOCATION Yvonne Braithwaite Burke Health Center 2509 Pico Boulevard Santa Monica PROBLEM Damaged and exposed backing to elevator flooring, 600 square feet of fire-proofing spray in basement mechanical room and repair of damaged fire door in same room. COST TO REMOVE $15,400 for immediate removal or repair; $18,250 for phased removal. LOCATION Sheriff’s Department Special Enforcement Bureau 130 W. Fetterly Ave. E. Los Angeles PROBLEM Damaged and exposed pipe insulation and glue in bureau’s Assembly Room chair closet. COST TO REMOVE $1,500 for immediate removal; $12,800 for phased removal. LOCATION Cudahy Library 5218 Santa Ana St. Cudahy PROBLEM About 2,360 square feet of spray-applied acoustic ceiling, which contains 5% asbestos, is partially damaged. COST TO REMOVE $42,500 for immediate removal. LOCATION Glendale Health Center 501 N. Glendale Ave. Glendale PROBLEM Mechanical room pipe insulation, which is 80% asbestos, is damaged and exposed. COST TO REMOVE $4,000 for immediate removal; $5,000 for phased. LOCATION Lynwood Sheriff’s Station 11330 Bullis Rd. Lynwood PROBLEM Damaged and exposed mechanical room fire door should be immediately repaired. COST TO REMOVE $250 for immediate repair; $7,600 for phased removal.