Mesothelioma Concerns Grow with Increasing Building Renovations in Massachusetts

Illustration of potential asbestos exposure in a building

The number of asbestos removal projects in Massachusetts has increased causing much called concern for workers in construction and associated industries. More than 300 asbestos safety violations have been issued in the state over the past five years. The majority of them were on job sites where renovations were taking place.

Workers like Henry Aguilar claim they are not always protected. He noticed a cracked floor tile on the carpet he was tearing out. The tiles were brown and old-looking, showing asbestos may be present. Aguilar told his supervisor, who said to not worry and keep working despite the apparent risk of exposure.

The tile came back positive for asbestos at a level that should result in workers wearing specialized breathing masks. Aguilar only had a paper mask, which does not protect him from the asbestos fibers being released into the air.

“I wish they told me about it and someone moved it before I did the work,” said Aguilar who is not trained in asbestos removal. Massachusetts asbestos laws follow federal NESHAP (National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants) guidelines, and workers who handle asbestos are required to be trained and certified by the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards.

Asbestos removers are two times as more likely to die from asbestos-related diseases than those who worked with it in manufacturing. In 2014, at least 4,000 people in the U.S. died due to asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma.

“It’s an awful cancer to have,” said former construction and textile worker Mike Dennen. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma four years ago, resulting in six rounds of chemotherapy, two surgeries, and labored breathing.

He believes it was caused by the pipe insulation he tore off during a six month-long project at a Martha’s Vineyard hotel. “We would touch the pipe insulation and this white dust like baby powder would come off,” said Dennen.

Until last year, monitoring of asbestos removal job sites was decreasing while the amount of asbestos abatement and demolition projects were increasing. The State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) performed 527 inspections in 2015, which was about half the amount performed in 2012.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration found only one asbestos violation in Massachusetts in 2016. The administration found nine violations in 2013. Before that, however, the State of Massachusetts has a long history with asbestos.

DEP fines equaled over $446,000 in 2015, but were reduced by 60%. Others are often suspended due to inability to pay. From 2012-2015, the number of fines issued also went down, but there were 26 repeat offenders in the past five years.

It’s not just Augilar’s employer violating the regulations. In July, the Peabody Firm National Abatement Inc. got its third state fine for asbestos workplace violations in three years. Four workers were removing the chemical with no personal protection. The company paid $9,200 for the first two fines, and is on a schedule to make the last $10,000 payment.

Workers are afraid to raise concerns, given that many are illegal immigrants and fear being deported as a consequence of complaining. One licensed asbestos worker in Lawrence, Massachusetts, said, “Then you don’t get any more work.”