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Asbestos Turns Home Projects Into Nightmares

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Men in yellow isolation suits and respirators padded through Zina Pikas’ Sherman Oaks condominium and Charles and Barbara Maggio’s Rancho Palos Verdes home last week, measuring polluted air and scraping fiber samples off couches, rugs and even a teddy bear.

Pikas and her daughter haven’t been able to get back into their condo for eight months. The Maggios and their son haven’t been able to go back home for six weeks.

Both families fled on the advice of health experts, taking nothing with them. Their possessions, presentable to the naked eye, are contaminated with deadly dust. Their losses will total hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The cause of these nightmares is a cancer-causing substance more commonly associated with industrial illness: asbestos.

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In both cases, home remodeling contractors began work without testing for the presence of asbestos in textured ceilings, insulation or floor covering--a sporadic oversight that reflects inadequate regulation and knowledge of asbestos in home improvement work, according to building experts.

Materials with the mineral asbestos become a hazard when they are in a deteriorated or crumbling condition, allowing them to release fibers into the air. The vast majority of homes older than 15 years--especially those built in the 1950s and 1960s--contain a number of asbestos products that were used because the substance strongly resists heat, fire and decay. Left undisturbed, the material poses no health threat.

Consumer officials have long urged homeowners to have a laboratory test suspected asbestos before remodeling. California regulations say asbestos can be broken up and removed only by a contractor who is specially licensed to handle the material. However, state building codes do not require a routine check for asbestos before a remodeling job is performed. The South Coast Air Quality Management District adopted such a regulation last year, but it lacks the inspectors to police contractors fully.

As a result, experts say, asbestos is routinely scattered and cleaned up in countless remodeling jobs, leaving fibers strewn throughout the house--sometimes unbeknown to the homeowner, sometimes with his complicity.

“I guarantee you it happens a thousand times a day,” said Steve McCloskey, a San Bernardino County floor contractor. “There’s no incentive here for the contractor to open his mouth. . . . Every homeowner I make aware of the fact that there’s an asbestos risk on his job laughs at me and says, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous. I’ll pull it out myself or I’ll have somebody come in on the weekend and do it.’ ”

Only by a fluke did Pikas and the Maggios have their homes tested for asbestos in the middle of their projects and discovered contamination. Both remodeling jobs are on hold until asbestos specialists can be hired to clean them.

Barry Groveman, the former head of the environmental crimes division of the Los Angles County district attorney’s office and now a private attorney representing both families, said he plans to file lawsuits against the contractors, contending they were responsible for checking for asbestos.

So far, the families, whose home insurance policies do not cover the damage, have been paying for new wardrobes, housing, home supplies and clean-up costs.

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“It’s still like a bad, bad dream,” said Pikas, 33, a Ukrainian-born makeup artist who since leaving her condo has lived in a rented apartment, with friends and now with her parents in Northridge.

“We’re going to worry about this every day,” said Barbara Maggio, 39, who said she is haunted by the fact that she and her 4-year-old son, Robbie, were in the house the day workers tore down a textured ceiling that contained asbestos. “He was eating when this happened. You hear asbestos can be dangerous but I had no idea it was inside my house.”

The Maggios’ contractor, Woodwind Construction in Torrance, declined to comment.

Pikas’ contractor, Robert Taylor, a textured ceiling specialist from Apple Valley who got the job through a remodeling contract Pikas signed with Sears, said Pikas “misled” him by assuring him there was no asbestos in her ceiling. Pikas denied the charge.

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Asbestos was used widely in industry until the mid-1970s, when the government established a definitive link between the substance and severe respiratory diseases, including lung cancer, and began limiting some of the most dangerous uses. From 3,000 to 12,000 people die annually from asbestos-related cancer.

In 1989, the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted a gradual ban on almost all asbestos products by 1997, including automobile brakes and construction materials. But the beleaguered asbestos industry won a major victory in October when a federal appeals court overturned the ban, saying the EPA had not proved that asbestos products still on the market pose unreasonable risks.

Dozens of industrial companies, most notably Manville Corp., the nation’s leading asbestos maker, have been forced into Bankruptcy Court because of tens of thousands of asbestos lawsuits by workers.

Last summer, the Asbestos Victims Special Fund Trust, a nonprofit educational organization established as part of the Manville Corp.'s 1988 reorganization to resolve asbestos claims, began a campaign to warn of potentially hazardous asbestos in homes, schools and offices. It offered stories similar to those of Pikas and Maggio from a variety of cities.

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Experts say the vast majority of people who have died from asbestos-related illness were heavily exposed to the substance on their jobs. But there have been enough cases of asbestos-related illness in people with brief or fairly low-level exposure to prompt most health experts to say there is no level of asbestos exposure known to be safe. Many victims don’t become ill until 20 years or more after exposure.

Pikas was remodeling her rented condo last spring and preparing to purchase it from the owner. She signed a $1,214 Sears contract to have the textured ceiling replaced by a smooth surface. Sears assigned the job to Wall Master Co., which specializes in sprayed-on ceilings for Sears. Wall Master subcontracted with Taylor, a former Wall Master employee who now runs his own company and owns equipment that removes textured ceilings. Taylor is not licensed to remove asbestos.

Pikas said the bank that was financing her home loan asked her to test for loose asbestos--the kind of “environment inspections” that financial institutions are making increasingly to avoid liability. The laboratory she hired called her when Taylor was in the middle of his work, told her that the ceiling contained asbestos, and advised her to leave immediately because of the large amount of dust that had been generated by the removal work.

One of Taylor’s workers, who was not wearing protective clothing or a respirator, was covered by materials containing asbestos. As a result, Cal/OSHA, the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, last April issued six citations to Taylor for using improper procedures and exposing a worker to potential danger, and fined him $2,000. The division’s appeals board dropped the fine and reduced one “serious” citation to “general” after Taylor appealed.

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Sears’ senior litigation counsel, William Bunch, said he had received letters of complaint from Pikas’ attorney but declined to comment on the case beyond saying that Sears “has produced some very impressive guidelines” for handling asbestos.

Richard Villa, chief executive officer of Wall Master, said his firm requires asbestos tests before starting work but said he could not make that demand of a subcontractor like Taylor.

Taylor, 31, said he made a mistake by not insisting that Pikas test the composition of the ceiling in the 15-year-old condo before he began work.

“I’ve been worried sick since it happened,” he said. “I was exposed. I breathed (asbestos) all day long. There’s nights I can’t sleep just thinking about it.”

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Pikas says she, too, is losing sleep.

Some of her possessions were taken to a landfill, while others have been placed in a hazardous-materials storage area, she said. Her bank loan fell through. The book of baby pictures of her 4-year-old daughter, Simone, and the portfolios of her makeup work are contaminated. Removing fibers from books and other porous surfaces, like furniture and clothing, is expensive.

“You can’t put a price on the life that I left there. My whole life changed,” she said.

The Maggio family has it better, relatively speaking, because the advertising agency where Charles Maggio is chief financial officer has promised to lend him money to cover the cost of removing asbestos from his home and of renting an apartment two blocks away.

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Both the Maggios and some of the subcontractors who worked on their 17-year-old, two-story home said the $100,000 remodeling job grew contentious because of complaints of slow work and insufficient supervision.

According to Barbara Maggio, asbestos became an issue only when one contractor showed her a sawed piece of ventilation duct and told her it contained asbestos. After the textured ceiling in the living room was removed, Maggio called a laboratory that sampled the air inside the home and the content of a piece of ceiling.

The lab, Asbestos Analysis Laboratories of Sherman Oaks, said it took upstairs and downstairs air readings that averaged nearly .11 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter. That is about one hundred times higher than the level of outdoor air in an average urban area, and about one thousand times higher than the level that California’s Proposition 65, which sets toxics standards, says can be breathed with “no significant risk.” Lab officials said they called with those results after 11 p.m. on a Saturday night in late October. Get out now, they advised the Maggios. The family headed for a hotel, leaving everything behind in their Halloween-decorated home, including son Robbie’s teddy bear.

“Of all the things in there, the biggest thing emotionally to me is his bear,” Charles Maggio said last week. “Threadbare, no nose, smashed up eyes. We’ve tried to show him other bears in stores, but this is the one he wants.”

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“We’re telling him that the bear went to heaven,” his wife said. “But he keeps asking for it. He can’t understand why we can’t go back inside.”


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