AUGUSTA — While consultants say there is no elevated risk of exposure to staff or the public, high asbestos levels found in the state Cultural Building prompted a change in how custodians were told to do their jobs.

At least one employee is concerned about clear communication from the state to former and current building workers about the issues.

“A lot of people work there and have worked their entire working lives in that building, and that to me is the bigger part of the tragedy,” said George O’Connor, a maintenance mechanic for the Property Management Division who works in an office in the building’s basement. “It’s not unknown, but there’s been no formal notification, (and) it appears … they are downplaying the nature of the incidents.

“It seems like this is a situation that is potentially hazardous and it should be dealt with expeditiously,” he added. “The defined level of harm is kind of nebulous. … The information is out there, and they’re not being very communicative.”

Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Service Deputy Commissioner Dick Thompson said custodial staff members were ordered in February to stop doing work over a certain height, such as changing lightbulbs or dusting the tops of shelves, until asbestos was removed or secured. He said Wednesday those workers have not been dispatched back to those areas, and that an abatement effort has been going on “in spots” of the building during the past month.

Thompson said all department leads were notified of the asbestos in the building, but no single email was sent to all employees. When the report from more comprehensive testing is done, he said, it will be available to all workers in full. Training sessions and other meetings have been conducted since the report came back, he added.

The Cultural Building, at 230 State St., houses the Maine State Library, the Maine State Archives and the Maine State Museum. Officials from those three institutions estimate more than 120,000 patrons and employees pass through the building each year.

Asbestos, which can cause deadly respiratory diseases, was found in debris that fell from the ceiling at the museum and archives in October 2018, prompting testing of the Cultural Building. Memos between officials at the state Department of Financial and Administrative Services said the material tested positive for chrysotile, a common form of asbestos, and was cleaned immediately.

An indoor air quality assessment and surface sampling for asbestos was undertaken by Westbrook-based Northeast Test Consultants, which said the asbestos is entrained in dirt and dust, therefore posing little risk of becoming airborne unless vigorously disturbed. Testing, which occurred in early January and resulted in a Feb. 5 report, involved the use of dust wipes to test areas in the basement, and first through fifth floors of the Cultural Building and personal breathing samples were taken by employees of the building and consultants during testing.

According to the report, dust levels containing 1,000 structures per square centimeter correlate to a “low” risk for potential airborne exposure. A “high” risk correlation would coincide to dust levels of 100,000 structures per square centimeter. Testing, according to the report, found a basement light fixture with a reading of 450,000 structures per square centimeter and an air supply duct returned 888,000 structures per square centimeter. Shelves on the first floor of the archives returned a reading of 321,000 structures per square centimeter, while supply diffusers on the second and third floor of the archives returned readings of 456,000 structures per square centimeter and 1.42 million structures per square centimeter, respectively.

Despite high readings from dust levels, the report states all personal breathing samples were less than 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter, which is less than the Occupational Safety and Health Administration limit. Further, air analysis samples taken in other parts of the building did not detect airborne asbestos fibers. There are no regulatory limits for the level of asbestos fibers in settled dust, as exposure laws are based on exposure to airborne fibers.

Northeast Test Consultants Operations Manager John Boilard, who said Tuesday he wrote the report, said the dormant material is a mixture of common dust or dirt and asbestos fibers. He said the material in which the asbestos is found behaves like a thick coat of dust; you can run your finger through it, and it cakes together and falls off in a single piece. He said that material is unlikely to become airborne.

“You’d have to go in there with an air … hose and blow the crap out of everything (to make the fibers airborne),” Boilard said. “We don’t get too excited about that if there’s no airborne issue.”

The consultants issued five recommendations based on the testing: Occupants and employees should be presented with the report’s findings, occupants and employees should receive asbestos awareness training, the custodial staff should receive OSHA Class IV asbestos training, areas containing asbestos “should be considered for removal,” and “properly trained and equipped” personnel should be retained for the cleaning of ducts.

State Archivist David Cheever conducts a tour of some of Maine State Archives storage areas in August 2007 in the Cultural Building in Augusta. High levels of asbestos fibers have been found in the building recently, but not in its air. Kennebec Journal file photo by Joe Phelan

Boilard said he participated in “multiple” meetings with the Cultural Building staff to explain the results of the report. He said his company is compiling a “more forensic” report on asbestos in the Cultural Building that will not be ready for another month.

Thompson said water and steam leaks could have caused the asbestos to be released from areas in the ceiling of the building and workers are removing the material. He speculated that asbestos was “delaminated” from beams and other materials in the ceiling of the building by water and steam leaks.

Thompson added that state-owned buildings are not tested regularly for asbestos.

The Kennebec Journal spoke with Augusta-area representatives — Rep. Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta; Rep. Dick Bradstreet, R-Vassalboro; Rep. Donna Doore, D-Augusta; and Sen. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta — who all were unaware of the report or any asbestos-related problems in the Cultural Building. Pouliot said all employees and members of the public should be informed of asbestos findings in the building.

O’Connor said there has been training for the current staff, but he was unaware of any notification of former employees who could have been exposed. He said now-entrained asbestos could have been circulated previously and affected former workers. He added that some outside contractors who he has spoken with while working in the Cultural Building were not aware of asbestos in the building until custodial staffers told them.

“That’s the nature of the state doing business as usual,” O’Connor said. “They still haven’t formally notified everyone because they are not done testing.”

He said maintenance workers were offered the chance to fill out an accident report to log any potential exposure to asbestos. He had an X-ray that showed no asbestos in his lungs.

Thompson said his department was considering notifying former employees but did not know how far back the effects could be traced.

Colin Ruggiero, communications specialist for Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance,  said symptoms of asbestosis take 10 to 30 years to present themselves, while symptoms of mesothelioma — cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, heart, or abdomen — take 10 to 50 years to develop.

The World Health Organization published a 2014 fact sheet about chrysotile asbestos that said about 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis resulting from occupational exposures. About 125 million people are exposed to asbestos each year, according to WHO.

Ruggiero said the custodial staff should have been sent home until testing was performed. Further, he said, air quality testing should have been done sooner than January.

“While the debris was tested for asbestos in October of 2018, the air quality was not,” Ruggiero said. “Asbestos fibers can remain airborne for as long as 48 to 72 hours, posing a potential threat to those who were within the building upon initial debris findings.”

He said dormant asbestos fibers, like those embedded in the settled dust in the Cultural Building, correlate to a “significantly reduced” risk of exposure. He said officials should have been proactive in cleaning the material, especially in areas with 173,000 to 1.4 million fibers per square centimeter.

“Being proactive and ridding the building of these fibers will allow for better health conditions for employees and visitors moving forward,” he said. “It is clear from both our outside findings and the documents that entail the presence of asbestos there are a number of locations inside of the building that have extremely dangerous levels of asbestos fibers.”

 

Sam Shepherd — 621-5666

[email protected]

Twitter: @SamShepME

The Cultural Building, shown Wednesday at the State House complex in Augusta, has been the subject of absestos investigations recently. Staff photo by Joe Phelan


Comments are not available on this story.

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.