Capitol Hill building closed after potential release of asbestos

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The Cannon House Office Building on Washington’s Capitol Hill was forced to close recently.  Deadly asbestos dust and fibres were thought to have been released during renovation works there.

Constructed in 1908 the Cannon House Office Building is the oldest congressional building, and was built to provide offices for every member of the House of Representatives. They were also provided with facilities for bathing and eating – even a barber shop was included within the building.

A history of asbestos exposure

Underground passages connect it to the Capitol, and it is in these tunnels that workmen maintaining the heating and cooling systems have suffered exposure to asbestos in the past.

In 2006, the Office of Compliance filed a complaint when the levels of asbestos in the air were found to be dangerously high. The case took many years to resolve, but in 2012 a lawsuit was finally settled.

July 2014 saw another incident in which asbestos was spilled within the Capitol complex. This resulted in closure of the White House side of the building. Concerned unions representing workers and Capitol Police, again put on record their concerns about asbestos exposure.

Ten-year project to remove the substance

A project expected to last for ten years was started in January 2015, costing more than $752 million in total. Renovations to the building, pipe work and plumbing are being phased, and it is expected that parts of the building will need to be closed at various stages throughout the process.

This most recent closure was not part of the planned schedule, however. The US Capitol Police became involved after raising a query with the Architect of the Capitol’s Office. Suspecting possible foul play, the building remained closed for more than a day whilst additional analysis of the air was carried out by an independent laboratory.

Test results were announced by the Architect of the Capitol as being “well below the regulatory limit.” On declaring the building open again, the AoC said:

“Engineers and certified industrial hygienists assessed the situation and an independent, accredited lab performed a rigorous air sampling analysis ….. The building is safe to reopen.”

Not renovated since the 1930s

It is said that the last renovations to the building took place in the 1930s. William Weidemeyer, House Office Buildings Superintendent, described the crumbling condition, both inside and out:

“The century-old building is plagued by safety, health, environmental and operational issues that are rapidly worsening ….. These systems are deteriorating or inoperable and unable to meet the current or future needs of the Congress.”