As if to remind workers everywhere about the danger of asbestos just as the third annual Asbestos Awareness Day (April 1) approached, the tragic story of the DC “tunnel rats” was published March 18 in the Washington Post.

Like so many workers in so many other places – including Laborers who built the dam near the W.R. Grace & Co. asbestos mine in Libby, Montana (see Former LIUNA Dispatcher Leads Asbestos Fight in Libby) – the DC tunnel rats are the latest victims of an industrial economy that ignored, covered-up and dodged responsibility for the dangers of asbestos fibers.

The tunnel rats are ten federal employees who are responsible for maintaining the heating and cooling systems that run through five miles of tunnels beneath the U.S. Capitol, Union Station, the Supreme Court and more than 20 congressional office buildings.  Decades ago, these systems were coated with asbestos to serve both as insulation and a fire retardant.  Today, that insulation is crumbling, and the men work each day amid fallen debris, exposed to airborne asbestos concentrations 30 times the permissible limit.

Asbestos is a mineral that shreds into microscopic fibers when handled or processed.  When inhaled, it lodges in the lungs, which react by building scar tissue around each fiber.  Over the course of 20 to 30 years, the scar tissue accumulates, eventually  blocking the capacity of the lungs to breathe.  Asbestosis is the debilitating result; sometimes, it causes virulent lung cancer or mesothelioma.

Though the dangers of asbestos exposure were known to corporate insurers as early as the 1930s, the corporations hid the fact from workers even as asbestos became one of the most commonly used industrial products of the post-WWII era.    Then, in 1964, an independent scientist exposed the danger in an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the law suits began.  By the 1990s, the courts were overrun with claims of former asbestos workers.  Today, with hundreds of thousands of cases clogging their dockets and more than 8,000 corporations named as defendants, the courts have asked Congress to intervene with a compromise to end the legal logjam (see Stakeholders Pick Apart Asbestos Compensation Bill).  After years of debate, however, compromise legislation to create a compensation fund has gone nowhere.

Three years ago, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization – an association mostly of asbestos victims and theie lawyers – declared April 1 National Asbestos Awareness Day.  The ADAO promotes awareness, education, advocacy, prevention, support and a cure for asbestosis.

This year, on March 1, Senator Patty Murray (D – WA) re-introduced (for the fifth time) a bill that would ban the use of asbestos in the United States.  Already, it is banned in most industrial nations.  The bill would also increase funding for research into the causes and treatment of asbestos-related disease and would require the federal government to conduct a more aggressive campaign of public education.

None of that, however, will help DC’s tunnel rats or any of the 19 million Americans who have contracted asbestos-related disease.

After working in the tunnels for 22 years, supervisor John Thayer finally had to speak up.  Seven years ago, he and his men were told that the debris in which they worked was highly contaminated with asbestos fibers.  Government safety inspectors concluded that the tunnels should be cleaned out and workers should be equipped with respirators and protective clothing.

It was five years before the respirators arrived and, despite a $27.6 million emergency allocation last year, the clean-up problem has not been attacked.  Nine of the ten tunnel rats have been diagnosed with symptoms of asbestos exposure.  “We thought the government was taking care of it,” Thayer told the Post (see ‘Tunnel Rat’ Breaks Silence on Dangers of Asbestos).  “We gave them seven years, and they didn’t fix it.  We continued to work and we never complained, even after people began to feel sick.  I finally had to say something.”

It remains to be seen if the Congress can act any more decisively on the plight of these ten employees than it has on the plight of America’s other asbestos victims.   Cleaning its own tunnels and banning asbestos nationwide would be two good first steps.  Perhaps then, the Congress will reassume its obligation to find help for America’s other asbestos victims.


These asbestos-related publications are available through the LHSFNA online publications catalogue:

Asbestos in Construction (health alert)
Face It: A Laborers’ Guide to Respiratory Protection (manual)

[Steve Clark]