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Asbestos Contamination Danger in Oregon

asbestos contamination

Asbestos contamination now may be endangering the lives of many residents of Portland, OR in a frightening situation uncovered by Portland’s Oregonian/Oregon Live media. Seemingly reckless demolition of many older Portland homes without first safely removing their asbestos content may be releasing tons of asbestos dust into the air, the news account alleged.

The dangerous situation came to public attention when local health and environmental authorities were notified by a Portland resident. She became alarmed when she noticed clouds of dust caused by workers demolishing a nearby home. The workers were not wearing protective masks. The neighbor feared the demolition was releasing asbestos contamination into the air, endangering her family, surrounding neighbors and the workers.

Asbestos Contaminated Homes Not Inspected Before Demolition

Asbestos contamination is occurring frequently in Portland, the media investigation suggests, because of lax rules for demolition permits. There is also a reported lack of inspectors to check for asbestos contamination prior to demolition if homeowners or construction contractors asked them to, which they apparently don’t.

About 750 Portland homes were demolished from 2011 to last year but only 25 asbestos inspections were performed by the regional environmental quality office covering Portland, according to the media reports.

During that time, the Portland office was allotted one position for a full-time asbestos inspector but left the position vacant.

“Contractors have routinely failed to address the presence of asbestos when demolishing homes,” media analysis reported.

It is unknown how many people may have been exposed to hazardous asbestos contamination from the demolitions. Some may not have even realized that they have breathed in toxic asbestos dust and if they become ill years later, they may not know it was caused by this exposure.

Asbestos Contamination Occurs Because of Inadequate Fines

According to the media investigation, asbestos contamination most likely occurs in Portland because the fines the city charges for neglecting to remove asbestos are inadequate. Infill pressure on development in Portland is at an all-time high and old homes are being knocked down at a rapid rate to make way for new ones raising the risk of asbestos contamination.

Because of Portland’s booming real estate market, the profits to be made selling a newly renovated house far outweigh the current fines for not removing asbestos before demolishing the old structure – if the property owner is even caught. If there is no inspection and the property owner is not caught, then the real estate profit is even greater since they avoid losing valuable construction time, avoid the expense of asbestos removal, and the fine for not removing it.

In the instance that brought the problem to light, a real estate broker hired workers to raze a home built in 1908. Five workers, dressed in regular clothes, were reportedly covered in asbestos contaminated dust during the demolition. When a worker complained about the possible asbestos risk to his employment agency, the real estate broker supposedly had the one wall he knew did not contain asbestos inspected by the agency. A subsequent state inspector was more thorough and discovered that materials throughout the house had asbestos contamination rates of six to 50 percent.

The state environmental agency fined the real estate broker $16,000 which was later reduced to $8,000. Property records show that the broker sold the house for $675,000. He had purchased it for $350,000 the previous month. A local licensed asbestos contamination removal contractor told the media that he would have safely removed the asbestos-containing flooring and insulation from the home for $2,500. The real estate broker appears to have preferred to risk the workers’ lives rather than pay that amount.

This real estate broker may now be facing criminal charges due to the publicity the media investigation has generated. But there are likely many more contractors like him who may have been doing the same thing.

Asbestos Contamination Exposure Kills

Asbestos contamination exposure can be lethal. If materials containing asbestos are disturbed, tiny asbestos fibers are released into the air. When these asbestos fibers are inhaled, they may get trapped in the lungs and remain there for a long time. Over time, these fibers can cause scarring and inflammation. This can affect breathing and lead to the development of fatal cancers.

Asbestos has been classified as a known human carcinogen (a substance that causes cancer) by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the EPA, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Studies have shown that exposure to asbestos may increase the risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma, a fatal cancer of the cells in the membranes that line the chest and abdominal area. Mesothelioma, the most common form of cancer associated with asbestos contamination, can take years to develop. By the time symptoms emerge and a diagnosis is made the disease has become advanced. The scientific consensus is that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.

Portland Slow to Act on Asbestos Contamination

Asbestos contamination concerns over demolitions have been an issue in Portland for several decades. Environmental officials have been aware since the 1980s that simply telling contractors to remove asbestos before a demolition is insufficient to make sure that it actually gets done.

Lawmakers rejected the Department of Environmental Quality’s plea for a law requiring asbestos inspections. The environmental quality agency tried again to address this issue 13 years later and almost succeeded. In 2002 it passed its own regulation requiring asbestos inspections before demolition. But about four months later, caving to industry complaints, the agency’s governing board abolished the regulation.

That will change soon. A bill to require asbestos inspections was passed by the Oregon Legislature this year and is slated to take effect in January.

At present, there is not much access to data about homes and asbestos contamination for prospective home buyers, renters or workers to rely on. The Department of Environmental Quality may know based on the address whether or not a specific home has had asbestos removed. But because in Portland contractors have not had to submit an asbestos inspection report before a demolition, the environmental agency has no way of knowing whether a contractor actually checked for asbestos.

While responsible contractors and knowledgeable homeowners exist who learn and act accordingly to mitigate risks of asbestos contamination, the article suggests that ignorance, deceit, and lack of Department of Environmental Quality compliance inspectors allows irresponsible people to act unconscionably and risk causing the deaths of innocent people.

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