NEW YORK, NY – A $2 billion renovation project at New York’s famed United Nations (UN) headquarters is already underway, and many of those who work in the midtown Manhattan skyscraper have deep concerns related to the extensive asbestos abatement work being performed at the E. 44th Street landmark. Asbestos is classified by health organizations around the world as a known cancer-causing agent, and the 60 year old U.N. building contains significant amounts of asbestos that will be disturbed and removed from the structure during the course of the extensive makeover that is expected to last several years.
The renovation project at the U. N. is designed to make the building more comfortable, energy efficient, and safer in a number of ways, including the removal of all asbestos-containing materials in the iconic structure that overlooks the East River. What many of those who work in the building want to know is: How safe will they be while the extremely toxic asbestos is being removed?
Asbestos is a general term that describes a variety of naturally occurring silicate minerals that exist in abundance in countries around the world. Asbestos can be excavated from the earth or extracted from several types of above ground geologic (rock) formations. Asbestos exists in a variety of types, chemical compositions, and colors, though, all forms of the material share a number of desirable attributes. Asbestos is flame retardant (practically fireproof), it resists moisture, mold, and corrosive chemical damage, has excellent insulating properties and more. As a result of the unique nature and abundance of asbestos, during the first half of the 20th century, the material found its way into countless manufactured products including building materials.
Widespread industrial and manufacturing use of asbestos in the United States came to a halt in the early 1970s, at which time it had been scientifically and medically confirmed that the inhalation of microscopic asbestos fibers could, up to 50 years later, cause the onset of serious diseases such as the highly aggressive, incurable, and deadly form of cancer known as malignant mesothelioma. Clearly, asbestos has extreme toxicity, and U. N. staffers have just cause for their concerns about the removal of the hazardous material from their workplace (asbestos exposures are considered to be most dangerous when the material is disturbed).
Stephen Kisambira is the President of the United Nations Staff Union, and during a rare U. N. Headquarters press conference, Kisambira spoke for many U. N. employees when he said, “Asbestos abatement is a serious issue. The risk is there, they are saying that nothing can go wrong. How can they be so sure?”
Kisambira and others have been assured by the renovation project’s manager, architect Michael Adlerstein, that there is no cause for concern. “There are very stringent requirements for asbestos procedures, and those will be followed by the contractors,” reads a statement that appears on a Web site Adlerstein has set up to provide U. N. workers and others with up-to-date information on the overall project (www.huwu.org/cmp/uncmp/English/).
Kisambira is not reassured by the words on Adlerstein’s Web site, and the staff union President points to the fact that contractors who specialize in asbestos abatement have been widely known to violate the “stringent requirements” of asbestos removal procedures that are designed to safely remove asbestos from a building. Kisambira has additional concerns about the asbestos project because, due to the unique international legal status of the U.N. Building, contractors who perform work in the structure(s) are wholly immune to lawsuits, and such protection from legal actions could embolden contractors to violate asbestos abatement regulations or applicable environmental laws.
When asked about Kisambira’s concerns about contractor immunity, no response was offered from Adlerstein or his firm’s spokesman – a similar “no comment” response was issued by the on-site construction management company, Skanska USA Building.