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Panel Tackles Museum Asbestos Claims

At a House Administration Committee hearing Wednesday, Smithsonian officials and safety experts were divided on how effective the institution has been in handling asbestos in its museums.

Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough told members of the committee that “our museums are safe, open and free as always.—

But consultant James August, who helped draw up the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s asbestos regulations, said he found the asbestos situation, at least at the National Air and Space Museum, “quite disconcerting.—

The Air and Space Museum is dealing with a whistle-blower complaint from Richard Pullman, 53, an electrician and exhibit specialist. Pullman has been diagnosed with asbestosis, a virulent form of lung cancer one can get from inhaling asbestos fibers.

“All forms of asbestos … pose a serious health risk,— said August, who pointed out that OSHA cited the Air and Space Museum in July 2008 for having “unsafe, unhealthy— working conditions.

In December 2008, Aerosol Monitoring & Analysis Inc. examined the level of asbestos present at the museum. Aerosol Vice President Gary Urban said the level was 0.005 fibers per cubic centimeter, far less than what OSHA has determined is the permissible exposure limit of 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter.

August, however, noted that a legal limit is not necessarily a safe limit.

The case of Pullman, who has been at the museum for 27 years, should serve as a “sentinel health event,— August said, adding that there could be other afflicted workers besides Pullman, whom he called “the tip of the iceberg.—

Clough, making his first appearance before the committee, said there had never been an indication of unacceptable levels of asbestos risk to the public in any Smithsonian museum. Clough said his office takes complaints about asbestos “very seriously— and has conducted a thorough investigation.

William Brennan, whose company, Turner Construction, has been hired to renovate the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, said Turner has taken extra measures and employed OSHA-certified workers to ensure that hazardous materials present in Smithsonian facilities remain undisturbed.

By the end of the two-and-a-half hour hearing, it was not apparent what, if anything, the House Administration Committee planned to do. Committee spokesman Kyle Anderson said that while Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) was committed to keeping Smithsonian museums safe from hazardous materials, there is “no clear path yet on how the committee will move forward.—

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