Courthouse Workers Get Asbestos Warning

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Asbestos at the aging downtown courthouse is of such concern that the county should give workers there--from judges to janitors--physical examinations at least once a year, the county grand jury recommended Thursday.

"The bottom line of this report is, 'Employees take care of yourself . . . ask the Board of Supervisors and members of management to do something about the problem,' " said grand jury foreman Phil Franklin.

Although acknowledging that there is no cheap solution to removing cancer-causing asbestos from the 663,000-square-foot courthouse, Franklin said the only foolproof remedy is to tear down the structure built in 1961 and build a high-rise replacement.

County and court officials have long said the building has to be replaced, but there is no money to build a new one.

The report's emphasis was clearly on allaying the fears of courthouse workers, whose complaints about courthouse asbestos spurred the grand jury investigation.

For example, the grand jury urged that courthouse maintenance employees who are exposed to asbestos most frequently while doing jobs such as changing light bulbs, should be given a physical examination stressing an evaluation of the lungs every six months.

Physical exams for other courthouse workers should be given once a year. Such examinations, provided by the county Department of Health Services, would lead to early detection of respiratory disease, the grand jury said.

Among other grand jury recommendations are the following:

*Requiring the county epidemiologist to survey the health histories of courthouse workers with an emphasis on asbestos-related illnesses.

* Hiring an independent and certified industrial hygienist to evaluate asbestos problems at the courthouse.

* Directing the county's General Services Agency to "bring the county courthouse up to accepted sanitary standards."

The grand jury found that, because of fears of asbestos contamination, normal building maintenance has suffered.

"Dead rodents are left in walls and ceilings to decompose, causing odors, thereby interrupting work efficiency and causing health absenteeism due to respiratory illnesses," the grand jury said.

The grand jury also criticized the secrecy surrounding a courthouse asbestos report compiled for the county last June. The $75,000 survey, conducted by the firm of EnviroMD3, was reviewed by the occupational and radiological division of the county Department of Health Services.

The county kept the bulk of the report secret and issued only an "Asbestos Fact Sheet," which the grand jury said "did not emphasize the serious dangers of . . . asbestos."

Concluded the grand jury:

"County courthouse employees are concerned about their health and welfare but have been denied the right to know the findings of the . . . survey. What was accomplished by holding back vital information?"

There are five steps the county could take to alleviate the asbestos problem, the grand jury said.

However, all but one are stopgap measures, such as covering the asbestos with glue or painting over it; building walls around existing walls so no air is allowed in or out; closing the courthouse entirely, or completely removing asbestos from the building, a very expensive option. The best solution, Franklin said, is building a new courthouse.

"The danger of cancer from asbestos is the main reason to consider a long-range plan to build a new high-rise courthouse," the grand jury said.

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