Hundreds of San Diego city employees remained in leased office space during building renovations and were exposed to cancer-causing asbestos because city officials did not want to risk being fined for breaking the lease, according to a lawsuit filed by a city employee. The lawsuit was filed by Bryan Monaghan, a city building inspector. As many as 550 may eventually join the litigation.
According to the claim, beginning in January 2016, the city began moving employees from the planning department, auditor’s office, homeland security, information technology and other departments into the leased building. In July 2017, the Air Pollution Control District was notified by Clauss Construction that crews planned to remove about 5,000 square feet of asbestos-containing fireproofing material.
Asbestos is a fire-resistant mineral that was widely used in building construction materials like insulation and tiles until the 1980s when its use was restricted. Asbestos does not pose risks if left undisturbed, but if asbestos-containing materials are disturbed as during renovation projects, the microscopic fibers can become airborne for days, and can be swallowed or inhaled.
Asbestos exposure can lead to serious illnesses over the course of years or even decades. Asbestos-related diseases include the incurable lung disease asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs and abdomen.
In August 2017, city employees reported illnesses related to the renovations in the building including headaches and nausea. In January, an emergency notification was made to air pollution officials that asbestos had been disturbed during construction work in the building’s lobby and immediate removal of the carcinogenic material was needed.
Subsequent air testing by county officials noted that “poorly constructed polyvinyl sheeting containing holes was all that separated the construction zone and the occupied office space.”
Between Jan. 25 and Jan. 29, air testing revealed two types of asbestos were present, including on floors occupied by city employees.
On Jan. 31, the city announced that it was moving 550 employees from the building in “an abundance of caution.”
In March, the city held a meeting with city employees to address their health concerns over possible asbestos exposure in the leased building. According to a transcript of the meeting, Deputy Chief Operating Officer Ronald Villa told employees, “The reason why it took so long (to relocate employees to another building) is there was no way for us to break the lease and we would have been held liable for all of that. Now that is over $1 million. Is that worth everybody’s whatever? Maybe, maybe not. The fact is there is a cost to that and we would have been in litigation over that.”
Source: San Diego Tribune