Six people were killed June 5 when a building under demolition in downtown Philadelphia, Penn., collapsed. A wall caved in on a Salvation Army store adjacent to the construction site, and staff and shoppers were buried under debris. Now, documents indicate there was asbestos present in the building. It appears the contractor did not notify city officials prior to beginning work and improperly disposed of asbestos-laden materials in an open trash bin on the construction site.
Exposure to asbestos has been linked to the development of mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that affects the lining of the lungs and the abdomen. There is no known cure for mesothelioma. Disturbing asbestos-laden materials, such as insulation, releases microscopic asbestos fibers that can be easily inhaled. Because of its highly toxic nature, asbestos is carefully regulated.
The Philadelphia collapse is the subject of both criminal and civil investigations. Documents released as part of the investigation show asbestos has been found at the construction site, despite a pledge from contractor Griffin Campbell that there was no asbestos present. Campbell was cited in May when inspectors found asbestos-containing refuse in a trash bin on the site, but he claimed someone else put it there.
Contractors had permits to demolish three adjacent buildings on the block, but investigators say the job was rushed, creating a hazard at the still-operating Salvation Army store next to the construction site. Records indicate STB Investments Corp., which was connected to the developer on the project, wanted to install a tarp and plywood over the Salvation Army roof, and demolish the adjoining wall inward by hand, away from the store.
Instead, evidence at the scene indicates the plywood and tarp were never placed, and an excavator may have been used to knock down the wall.
It is unclear at this time how work will proceed now that asbestos has been discovered at the site. The U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has specific standards for the construction industry to reduce the risk to workers from asbestos. This includes requiring employers to provide personal exposure monitoring to assess the risk, and hazard awareness training for operations where there is any potential exposure to asbestos. Employers are required to protect workers by establishing regulated areas, controlling certain work practices and provide for the wearing of personal protective equipment.
OSHA guidelines note “There is no ‘safe’ level of asbestos exposure for any type of asbestos fiber. Asbestos exposures as short in duration as a few days have caused mesothelioma in humans. Every occupational exposure to asbestos contributes to the risk of getting an asbestos-related disease.”