ranking in U.S. for mesothelioma & asbestosis deaths
Although Washington, D.C., is not a heavy industrial city, the district's many old buildings may pose an asbestos threat to residents and visitors. Government buildings on Capitol Hill, including embassies, military buildings and public offices, may have been constructed with asbestos, and renovation or demolition of these older buildings may release asbestos into the air.
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Each branch of the military has at least one base in Washington, D.C., and military bases are notorious for their high levels of asbestos. D.C. is home to three Army bases, one Air Force base, three Coast Guard bases, a Marine base and two naval bases. Military buildings like D.C.’s Fort McNair and Bolling Air Force Base were required to be insulated with asbestos when they were built, and those who served and lived in the bases may have inhaled the fibers.
Although the District of Columbia is not regarded as an asbestos haven, several lawsuits involving companies who did business in the District were defendants of asbestos lawsuits.
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*The CDC database suppressed these numbers to protect the privacy of patients.
Construction workers in Washington, D.C., potentially face one of the most significant asbestos exposure risks in the area. Because many of the buildings were constructed before the 1980s, most of the offices, hotels, embassies and museums contain asbestos. Construction workers who are assigned to repair or tear down these structures face an elevated risk of inhaling asbestos if proper abatement procedures are not followed.
Maintenance workers in the underground tunnels below Capitol Hill are also at risk for developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. Asbestos levels were found to be up to 40 times the legal limit in the tunnels, but crew workers were not informed of the heavy concentrations of the dust. Safety equipment was not provided to the workers until 2006, when respirators became required because of an enforcement action from the Architect of the Capitol. Seven of 10 tunnel workers developed asbestosis, and all are estimated to be at high risk for mesothelioma and lung cancer.
Capitol Hill, one of Washington’s centerpieces, is home to more than 20 federal buildings. By the 1870s, architects were wiring buildings for electricity and piped water, potentially using asbestos-contaminated construction materials to provide the plumbing and lighting. Capitol Hill workers at the Senate and House building offices, Library of Congress and the U.S. Marine Barracks may also be exposed to asbestos in the old structures.
The Washington Navy Yard was originally a shipbuilding center until the War of 1812, but by World War II it was transformed into the world’s largest naval ordnance plant, manufacturing weapons like battleship guns and clockwork torpedoes. During its manufacturing era, asbestos use was widespread. Ships were constructed with asbestos insulation to prevent the vessels from catching fire, while factory equipment was insulated with asbestos to reduce the risk of the high-heat machinery overheating. Navy yard workers may have been exposed to asbestos on the steel and iron casting equipment, blast furnaces and other facility machines.
The nation’s capital is home to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has handled an increasing number of asbestos-related cases since the 1980s. The Supreme Court decided two high-profile class action settlements in 1997 and 1999, and has fielded several petitions by asbestos trusts to review past decisions from lower courts.
During the 1997 class action, a group of 20 former asbestos manufacturers and insurers, including National Gypsum Company, A.P. Green Industries and CertainTeed Corporation, proposed a settlement plan for all pending and future asbestos claims. It created an administrative process and payment schedule for compensation based on a person’s history of asbestos exposure and the health problems that followed.
Mesothelioma claimants, for example, would receive between $20,000 and $200,000 amounts far lower than the average mesothelioma verdict in asbestos lawsuits. The plan offered no compensation or medical monitoring to asbestos-exposed claimants without evidence of disease, and prevented family members of asbestos victims from receiving awards for loss of consortium. In addition, parties who filed a claim against the group of companies after January 15, 1993, would have their claims denied.
The 1999 class action faced similar problems. It was filed by Fibreboard Corporation, an asbestos manufacturer that has struggled with litigation since the 1950s. In 1990, the company proposed a global settlement of the company’s asbestos liability, which would distribute $1.535 billion among some 45,000 claimants exposed to Fibreboard products.
During both cases, plaintiffs’ lawyers expressed concerns about who would qualify for the class and how the funds would be distributed within it. The Supreme Court rejected both class actions because they would exclude future claimants and unfairly distribute awards, among other issues.
Asbestos cases have also been filed in lower-level Washington, D.C., courts. In 2004, the Washington Hospital Center appealed a court decision to award workers’ compensation benefits to a woman who developed peritoneal mesothelioma. The plaintiff, Anita Jones, worked as a custodial supervisor for the hospital for 23 years, where she came in contact with friable asbestos fireproofing materials and asbestos in the building’s HVAC system. The hospital argued Jones should not receive benefits because she failed to report her illness was work-related in a timely manner. However, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals concluded that Jones’s notice was filed timely and that she was entitled to compensation.
In 2005, a former boiler service worker in metropolitan Washington, D.C., sued Burnham Corporation and Foster Wheeler, LLC, charging he developed asbestosis because he worked around their “unreasonably dangerous and defective asbestos-containing boiler products.” Basil F. Weakley, Jr., worked from 1964-79 as a boiler serviceman and repaired boilers sold to his primary employer, the Fairfax County Public Schools. He also worked for Allen Mitchell & Co. and Capitol Boiler Works. A judge issued a summary judgment for the defendants, but that was overturned on appeal, and the case was settled out of court shortly thereafter.
In September 2011, two men from the District of Columbia Department of the Environment were arrested on charges of demanding bribes to cover up asbestos contamination. Joe L. Parrish and Gregory A. Scott were inspectors at the DDOE, and federal agents charged them with receiving $5,000 in bribes. The charges stemmed from an August 2011 earthquake in the Mid-Atlantic area. The U.S. Justice Department said the inspectors asked for money in exchange for not reporting asbestos issues at an apartment building that was undergoing renovations when the earthquake hit. A witness cooperating with federal agents said each inspector received $2,500.
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