In a story in Sunday's Washington Post, reporters James Grimaldi and Jacqueline Trescott report that asbestos is present in the walls of the National Air and Space Museum. Though visitors are not thought to be at risk, at least one worker is now sick.
Grimaldi says a 1992 study by the Smithsonian determined that a joint compound used to seal wall seams contained asbestos. However, Grimaldi was told that in the following years, the information was not communicated with museum managers.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the compound six years after construction of the museum began in 1972. But "as anyone who's ever worked with wallboard knows," Grimaldi says, "you sand it after you've put it up there." Sanding the compound releases the asbestos into the air — and breathing that air is highly dangerous.
It took an asbestos awareness class to alert one museum worker to the danger. Richard Pullman was shocked when he was told there was asbestos in the walls of the museum. "I've been drilling and sawing into these walls for years, unprotected," Pullman told Grimaldi.
After the class, Pullman consulted a doctor and was diagnosed with asbestosis, a progressive disease where the ingested fibers work their way into the lungs.
Museum workers say they weren't aware of the danger, and the Smithsonian tells Grimaldi that the current administration only found out last year. The awareness sessions are part of the institution's response to the situation.
The Smithsonian also says they immediately imposed proper methods of working with the materials that contain the asbestos, but complaints from workers prompted an investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The investigation resulted in a citation for mishandling and improper notification, Grimaldi reports, and the Smithsonian acknowledges that the workers were not properly notified.
Grimaldi stresses that there is no danger for visitors to the museum. Tests indicate the museum's air is safe, and a cleanup operation removed the dust that had accumulated in the building from the drilling and sawing.