About Rhode Island
As the smallest U.S. state, Rhode Island is not historically known as a hotspot for asbestos exposure. A naturally occurring crocidolite asbestos deposit is found in Cumberland near the northeast state line, but it was never mined. Rhode Island’s economy is largely focused on health care and education.
Manufacturing, which is the industry most often associated with asbestos exposure, is the state’s third-largest industry. In terms of manufacturing, Rhode Island is generally noted for costume jewelry, fabricated metal products, machinery, electrical equipment and some shipbuilding.
Rhode Island is ranked 38th in the nation for total asbestos-related deaths. Between 1999 and 2013, 214 asbestos-related deaths were recorded. For mesothelioma, a rare cancer most often attributed to asbestos exposure, 172 deaths were documented. Mesothelioma patients in Rhode Island can find specialists that study and treat this rare cancer in nearby Massachusetts at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Notable exposure locations throughout the state include schools, manufacturing sites and shipyards. Power generation plants and chemical plants in operation before the 1980s were also a likely source for asbestos exposure. Although asbestos-related deaths in Rhode Island rank relatively low in comparison to national statistics, the state still strictly regulates asbestos removal to prevent future exposure.
In October 2019, reports surfaced of asbestos contamination at a former radio broadcast center in East Providence, Rhode Island. The exposed building had fallen into disrepair and been vandalized, posing an exposure threat to those nearby. The building owner was required to remove asbestos and other contaminants before demolition of the building could begin.
Rhode Island’s Occupations and Areas at Risk
Rhode Island was once one of the leaders in textile production. This particular industry has a history involving asbestos exposure because asbestos was one of the minerals commonly used in commercial cloth and fabrics. Asbestos was also regularly found in the industrial equipment used in textile factories, primarily for fireproofing. While the textile industry remains part of the state’s economy, most textile factories relocated to the southern U.S. after the Great Depression. The Rhode Island Textile Company has been producing textiles in the state since 1913, and was operational throughout the peak decades when asbestos use was at its highest.
Numerous jobsites and buildings throughout Rhode Island have been a source for asbestos exposure. For example, the Department of Education Administrative Building (known as the Roger Williams Building) in Providence contained 30 and 50 percent chrysotile asbestos in the insulation surrounding pipes and furnaces. On August 7, 1991, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health was asked by the Professional Employees Union to conduct a Health Hazard Evaluation on the building. The Department of Education first moved into the building in 1981.
Air samples in the furnace room indicated the presence of airborne asbestos. Friable asbestos was also located along the boilers, furnaces and steam pipes that ran around the walls and basement ceiling. Employees had to walk through these areas to reach the parking area. At the time of the evaluation, employees were already experiencing respiratory problems.
Jobsites with Known Asbestos Exposure:
- Synthron Chemical
- Puritan Aerosol
- Davisville Naval Station
- Charleston Navy Base
- Wickford Shipyard
- Department of Education Administrative Building
- Kaiser Aluminum
- Narragansett Power
- University of Rhode Island
- North Scituate Public Library
- Middleton High School
- Barrington Congregational Church
Shipyards throughout the U.S. have been major sources of asbestos exposure since the 1930s. Thousands of asbestos-containing materials were used to construct ships, and workers were unaware of the hazards associated with asbestos. Anyone who built ships or served on them between the 1930s and 1970s were likely to experience some degree of asbestos exposure.
Shipyards in Rhode Island that were a Source of Asbestos Exposure for Workers
- Newport Naval Yard: The Newport Naval Yard of Newport, Rhode Island, was created in 1861 to protect ships from Confederate forces during the Civil War. Between 1941 and 1946, the Naval Operating Base occupied the same location until the end of the Vietnam War. The Naval War Academy and the Naval Underwater System Center still occupy the site. The Navy also uses the yard to station and maintain inactive ships.
- Walsh-Kaiser Shipyard: The U.S. Maritime Commission was established in 1942 as an emergency shipyard for building cargo vessels. After building six Liberty Ships, the yard built Tacoma Class frigates to protect shipping convoys in the North Atlantic. All of these frigates were sold to Britain after their completion. This shipyard was initially under the management of the Rheem Company, but Henry J. Kaiser bought the yard following operational difficulties. Kaiser increased the shipyard’s production and a workforce of nearly 21,000 people was eventually employed. After World War II, the yard was closed and little remains at the site today.
Clean Air Act Violation
In 2005, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined a Johnston, Rhode Island, company $256,320 for violations of the Clean Air Act. Between 2004 and 2005, the Bilray Demolition Company, Inc. demolished buildings that used to house the Seaboard Foundry. The fine occurred after the EPA alleged the company failed to follow asbestos removal regulations.
Asbestos in Rhode Island Schools
Three schools in Providence, Rhode Island, were a source for asbestos exposure in 1990. The schools included Winsor Hill, Brown Avenue and Sarah Dyer Barnes. More than 600 students, teachers and administrators between the three schools may have been exposed to asbestos for as long as one year. The suspected exposure came from old asbestos-containing vinyl tiles that were ripped up during the summer of 1990. The Rhode Island Department of Health closed the schools until asbestos issues were resolved.
There are no recent reports of lawsuits related to asbestos exposure in Rhode Island schools. However, the state Department of Health completed a statewide survey in 1978 that uncovered major asbestos health risks in several schools. A published report of the findings, titled Asbestos Hazard Evaluation in Rhode Island Schools, describes four schools where spray-on asbestos contaminated classrooms, corridor ceilings and a gymnasium. Spray-on asbestos, a popular insulation material from the 1950s to the early 1970s, was found in 24 of the 326 schools that participated in the survey.
Regulations for Managing Asbestos
Rhode Island’s Asbestos Control Program works to protect the public from asbestos exposure. The program is responsible for making sure the provisions of the Rhode Island Rules and Regulations for Asbestos Control are followed. In addition, the Rhode Island Asbestos Act defines schools as high-priority buildings when asbestos is involved. Although regulations do not require asbestos removal from schools, asbestos-containing materials must be identified and maintained. This applies to other public buildings as well.
Many jobsites in Rhode Island used products that may have exposed workers to asbestos. While the state has taken steps to limit asbestos exposure and to ensure safe handling of asbestos in the future, asbestos-related diseases remain a concern because of the long latency period between the initial exposure and the onset of symptoms.
To protect workers and the public from harmful exposures, the EPA and the Rhode Island Department of Health enforce strict regulations on any activities involving asbestos. If asbestos work is done unsafely or completed by someone who is not certified, large fines or jail time may result.
Recent fines for asbestos offenses
- In 2013, a federal judge issued a $10,000 fine and five years of probation to Coventry Building Wrecking Co. Inc., a Rhode Island wrecking company that lied to the EPA about inspecting for asbestos prior to completing two demolitions in Coventry. Federal guidelines order $4,000 to $8,000 in fines, but the company agreed to a plea deal that could have resulted in a sentence up to $50,000.
- A 2010 EPA complaint named three parties that violated federal asbestos laws during a demolition project at Naval Station Newport. By failing to properly store and seal asbestos waste in leak-proof containers, Naval Station Newport, Goel Services, Inc. and A.A. Asbestos Abatement Co. Inc. each violated the Clean Air Act and the National Emission Standard for Hazardous Air Pollutants for asbestos (NESHAP). The EPA required the offenders to pay a $14,238 penalty and certify they are now following NESHAP requirements.
- After failing to properly report plans to demolish 146 residences in 2010, the Rhode Island Airport Corporation and two demolition contractors were fined $25,000 by the EPA. The contractors include the Jones Payne Group, Inc. of Massachusetts, which agreed to pay the full penalty, and O.R. Colan Associates of Florida, LLC. An EPA investigation found that NESHAP requirements appear to have been met during demolitions related to voluntary land acquisitions at T.F. Green Airport, but the EPA requires official notice of all demolition projects to ensure they are completed safely.
- From 2004 to 2005, Bilray Demolition Company, Inc. demolished the Seaboard Foundry in Johnston after a fire damaged the facility. Upon completion of the project, the Rhode Island Department of Health found asbestos materials on site. The company was issued a $256,320 penalty for a series of NESHAP and Clean Air Act violations, including failure to inspect for asbestos, failure to notify the EPA of intent to demolish, failure to wet asbestos during removal and failure to dispose of asbestos waste properly.