In November of 2009, the Kansas Department of Environmental Health received a request from Topeka attorney Keen Umbehr to investigate the potentially inappropriate and illegal removal of asbestos-containing flooring from a dormitory in the women’s prison during facility renovation in 2005.
The removal, by inmates and employees of the Topeka Women’s Correctional Facility, reportedly involved using mechanical grinding machines to reduce the asbestos-containing tiles into a powder.
During removal, workers were also directed to use brooms and shovels to clean up the debris, and then put it loose into metal trash containers at the work site without first bagging it.
Both are violations of National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants regulations, or NESHAP, a definitive set of descriptions and regulations that explains the nature of asbestos and the methods by which it must be disposed either during demolition or building renovation. The standards are set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Under NESHAP demolition practices, at least as they relate to asbestos, the product in question is to be kept wet to prevent fibers escaping into the air – a rule that would largely be negated by grinding the product, especially in the presence of workers not protected against airborne fibers, in areas open to the public and non-workers, and without constant air sampling.
Disposal also requires the use designated (labeled), airtight plastic bags, placed in labeled containers and disposed of at an EPA-approved hazardous waste landfill.
Asbestos, when broken, damaged or deteriorating with age, releases microscopic fibers which, when inhaled or ingested merely by swallowing saliva, can become lodged in the mesothelial tissues around the lungs, heart or abdomen, leading to a slow-acting but highly lethal cancer called mesothelioma.
Occurring most often as pleural mesothelioma (in the lungs), this cancer can also appear near the heart (pericardial mesothelioma) or in the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma).
In all cases, it has a long dormancy period, up to 50 years, during which the cancer’s slow spread without evident symptoms progressively damages the body’s vital tissues and organs.
By the time symptoms become disconcerting enough to force victims to consult a physician, mesothelioma has become so invasive that most doctors give patients about a year to live.
This prognosis is improved by earlier detection, but earlier detection depends not only on better diagnostic tools but on advanced screening for people who have been – or even think they have been – exposed to asbestos. Unfortunately, since many victims of mesothelioma aren’t aware of exposure, early diagnosis becomes difficult if not impossible.
In the case of inmates at the Topeka women’s prison, the exact date of exposure is known. What isn’t known is the extent of exposure, but the letter charges that workers involved in the renovation were not properly trained in asbestos remediation, did not receive the appropriate protective gear (i.e., respirators, disposable coveralls and gloves, among other items), and weren’t told of the health risks.
Kansas Department of Corrections spokesman Bill Miskell has noted that the department is cooperating fully with the EPA to determine the extent and level of the risk. The problem, notes EPA investigator Randall Whipple, is documenting and substantiating a lot of the claims, since the event occurred over five years ago in what is otherwise a controlled environment.
The Topeka Women’s Correctional Facility houses 550 prisoners and employs 225 others. Kansas Governor Mark Parkinson ordered an independent audit of the prison system in October of 2009 – days after the news of improper asbestos removal first surfaced in a local publication.
Source: Associated Press