Washington, D.C., or the District of Columbia, is the capital of the United States and the seat of the three branches of government. Its designation as a federal city means that Washington is not part of any state. Its population of 646,949 residents lives in a city with a diversified economy with only a few industries devoted to manufacturing. This makes Washington seem relatively asbestos-free, but that is not the case. There are many federal government facilities within the District of Columbia which were built before asbestos use in the U.S. was restricted in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There are also thousands of private residences, over 150 foreign embassies, a plethora of international organizations’ headquarters, and at least 10 military bases in and around Washington; many of these structures were built before 1980, so renovating or tearing them down results in the release of asbestos fibers into the environment.
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Asbestos and Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C. was founded in 1790 and named after the first President of the United States, George Washington. It was designed by the French architect Pierre L’Enfant and originally occupied land donated by the states of Maryland and Virginia. In 1846, Congress ceded the suburban city of Alexandria back to Virginia in a process called retrocession. Located near the Atlantic Ocean on the banks of Potomac River, for many years the city was considered a hardship post by foreign ambassadors due to its hot summer weather and outbreaks of mosquito-borne malaria.
As the size and power of the federal government grew, so did the city’s population and need for housing. Starting during the Civil War era and peaking in the 1950s, the influx of new workers in both government and the private sector resulted in the construction of hundreds of public buildings, business establishments, airports, land transportation terminals and railroad stations, and thousands of homes. The creation of many new federal agencies during the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War was the catalyst for the District of Columbia’s growth.
Although Washington, D.C. is not an industrial town like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, its founders intended the city to be a financial center as well as the nation’s seat of political power. Its location on the Potomac River was deliberate; there were already two port towns within the District’s boundaries: Alexandria on the Virginia tract, and Georgetown in the land donated by Maryland. This gave the city access to the sea via Chesapeake Bay and made it a transit point for crops such as tobacco and wheat.
Railroads, highways, and airports also link Washington to the rest of the country and to the world. Later, the establishment of government and private banks made Washington an important financial center.
The city’s modest manufacturing capacity does not mean that Washington is a haven from asbestos exposure problems. Unfortunately, the city’s growth coincided with the nation’s dependence on asbestos and asbestos-containing materials (ACMs).
Asbestos, which is a term applied to a group of six fibrous minerals with the ability to withstand fire, high temperatures, chemical reactions, and even electrical discharges, was introduced to the U.S. during the early 19th Century’s Industrial Revolution. Steam engines for ships and railroads revolutionized transportation, and asbestos-derived components were made to make them safer and more durable. Asbestos was also used in various construction materials, such as cement, roofing shingles, or insulation, to make buildings structurally stronger, more fire-resistant, and even more comfortable during the winter.
Whether the manufacturers of asbestos products knew from the beginning that the fibrous minerals were also toxic to humans is not known. Accounts of asbestos use and its ill effects on people were recorded in ancient Roman archives, but it is unlikely that the early purveyors of the seemingly wondrous mineral knew of them.
By the time that the British and American medical communities started diagnosing strange and deadly forms of cancer in factory workers in the 1890s, the profits from asbestos manufacturing were too large for the mining and refining companies to take heed.
On the contrary, the asbestos industry used its influence and an army of lawyers to suppress any data that suggested a connection between its products and lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis.
Thus, by keeping the dark side of asbestos hidden and by lobbying the federal government, companies such as W.R. Grace and Johns-Manville convinced Washington that its products were not only safe but essential. Federal law even required the armed forces, especially the Navy, to use asbestos for fireproofing and other safety-related purposes.
As a result, most of the District of Columbia’s public buildings, including the 10 military bases in and around the city, were built before asbestos use was restricted after 1980. All new construction in the capital is now done with safer substitutes, but the older buildings that have not been renovated or undergone asbestos abatement processes still contain large amounts of the toxic minerals.
As a result, Washington ranked 49th in the nation for asbestos-related deaths. According to figures published by the Environmental Working Group in 2004, there were 14 fatal cases of asbestosis and between 41 to 73 deaths caused by mesothelioma recorded from 1979 to 2001.
Job Sites Known For Asbestos Exposure Issues
- Washington, D.C. Navy Yard
- Bolling Air Force Base
- Walter Reed Army Medical Center
- Naval Research Laboratory
- National Air and Space Administration
- Bureau of Engraving
- Blair House
- The Pentagon (Department of Defense)
- Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall
- Department of State
- Department of Labor
- Department of the Interior
- Treasury Department
- Department of Justice
- Department of Agriculture
- Department of Commerce
Getting Legal Help in Washington, D.C.
If you’ve been diagnosed with mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer, or asbestosis, you may qualify for significant compensation. Remember to fill out our from to get your free Financial Compensation Packet, with information on asbestos and mesothelioma lawyers in your area.