Smithsonian: Health danger lurks in ceilings, walls

By Max Cacas

The arrival of Cherry Blossom Week is a reminder to Washingtonians that the Smithsonian museums are some of the most popular tourist destinations in the Nation’s Capital. Members of a House committee are focusing on recent published reports of possible employee exposure to asbestos at two of those museums.

It’s important to say at the outset that there have been no instances of visitor contamination or sickness from asbestos at the Smithsonian Museums.

That said, a recent article in the Washington Post tells the story of Richard Pullman, a long time exhibits staffer at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. He’s filed suit against the Smithsonian for failing to tell him and his fellow workers about the presence of asbestos in the unseen areas above exhibit galleries. That’s because his doctor has diagnosed him with asbestosis, a lung disease pegged to exposure to asbestos fibers.


On Wednesday, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough testified on the problem of asbestos before the House Administration Committee.

Without addressing in detail Pullman’s pending lawsuit, Clough did have this to say about his situation:

We take the Air and Space Museum complaint about asbestos very seriously, and have conducted a thorough investigation. We are concerned about Mr. Pullman’s health and well being. Any worker at the Smithsonian has the right to call attention to safety issues on the job, and always will.

Since 1990, Clough says the Smithsonian has spent more than $15 million dollars for asbestos abatement, and yesterday, he outlined a six-part program to step up asbestos safety for employees and museum volunteers alike.

The program includes:

  • reviewing all asbestos safety policies, and focusing on the Air and Space Museum workers who might also have been exposed to asbestos,
  • beefing up safety training for all Smithsonian workers as well as for contractors and subcontractors, and most importantly,
  • reaching out to former Smithsonian staffers and volunteers who think they may have been exposed to asbestos while doing their jobs.

Witnesses also suggested that the problem may extend beyond the Smithsonian and its museums.

The Smithsonian, indeed, much of the federal government, is housed in buildings that can be as much as 150 years old, having been built in the early 1900s through the mid 1960s. All of them will have to be carefully examined when it comes time to do renovations or repair work in the near future.

On the Web:

Committee on House Administration – Asbestos Hearing (press release)

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