Capitol Hill Cannon Building Closes Due To Asbestos Scare

Illustration of potential asbestos exposure in a building

The Cannon House Office Building, home to over 100 lawmakers’ offices on Capitol Hill, closed on Friday night and most of Saturday due to an asbestos scare. Engineers and industrial hygienists inspected the area and potential asbestos contamination per the Cannon Renewal Project—the renovation of the 114-year-building.

Government officials are referring to the incident as a potential “asbestos release” as a result of the building’s ongoing construction. Cannon is only in “phase 0” of its 10-year $752.7 million project. This phase includes installing building systems in the basement.

Although officials claimed further air samples tested negative for asbestos traces—“sample results were well below the regulatory limit for general space occupancy”—and the U.S. Capitol Police reopened the Cannon Building, an investigation is underway. The police questioned the Architect of the Capitol’s (AOC) office about “foul play or criminal intent” linked to the asbestos exposure.

A union is representing the Capitol Police Force in the matter of the AOC emails communicating the asbestos levels were safe.

“We are waiting to hear back from the officers to determine if the email specifically stated the found permissible exposure levels. If not, the union will request on their behalf the actual findings for the officers’ peace of mind,” said Jim Konczos, U.S. Capitol Police Labor Committee Chairman.

The Cannon building was completed in 1908; a time when asbestos was regularly used in commercial and residential construction. It’s the oldest of all congressional buildings, filled with offices and meeting rooms. Some of the 100 lawmakers with offices there also often sleep overnight, but the exact number of individuals is unknown.

In fact, Capitol Hill is no stranger to asbestos issues. In July 2014, an asbestos spill during removal resulted in the House side of the Capitol closing, which halted business that day.

Only two months after that, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 626 was representing AOC workers and stated the AOC was failing to comply with requests for information regarding employees who were exposed to the asbestos.

Three complaints were filed with the Congress’ Office of Compliance as a result of the July 2014 asbestos spill. This office’s intent is to oversee workplace grievances on the hill, but all three cases remain open according to Paula Samberg, the office’s Deputy Executive Director.

“In each of these cases, we have identified the steps that should be taken to minimize the chances that a similar incident will recur and we are working with the AOC to ensure that those steps are being taken,” said Samberg.

In 2012, the Office of Compliance finally closed a 13-year case regarding 10 workers who were exposed to asbestos during construction in Capitol tunnels. All 10 eventually had health problems that affected them for life.

“In an abundance of caution… the building remains closed,” said the AOC office on October 31 regarding the most recent asbestos event. Now, the office says some asbestos traces were found by “an independent, accredited lab,” but they were not hazardous to human health.

“There were no injuries associated with this event,” said the AOC, yet the further comments have been made as to how many people were exposed and if any prevention action is being taken.