Levels of airborne asbestos in local Navy housing are within the allowable Navy levels for sleeping quarters, Long Beach Naval Station officials reported last week after tests at seven dwellings they consider typical of Navy homes in Long Beach.
The Navy failed to determine, however, if asbestos levels at Navy homes in Long Beach and San Pedro exceed a more stringent standard imposed last year on California schools or are higher than the level some federal Department of Health and Human Services researchers consider safe in the workplace.
Asbestos testing here began week before last after a council of labor unions at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard initiated a class-action grievance, alleging that about 20 shipyard workers who repair nearly 2,000 Navy dwellings and the residents of those dwellings are routinely exposed to asbestos.
There is no official federal or state standard for a safe level of asbestos in homes.
"With these reading I'm convinced we don't have a health hazard for the occupants," said Cmdr. Lindsey Kalal, executive officer of the Naval Station.
To get reliable readings of much more detail would take days of additional testing on existings samples, and he does not plan to order such tests, said Kalal.
Below the Navy Standard
"We know we've got it below the Navy standard, and to see how much further it will go down is more of a research project than an operational need," he said. "If the Navy changes its standard, I'll test it down to that standard."
The Navy's tests for airborne asbestos show that less than .1 fiber per cubic centimeter of air was present in the seven sample homes, said Kalal. The actual amount could be much lower than that, he added.
A 1984 state law that provided money for removal of asbestos from schools imposed a .01 safety level on California classrooms, a standard that is 10 times lower than the Navy one.
And a research arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that studies working conditions in business and industry, has also recommended that .01 fiber be considered an "action level" at which employers take remedial action to lessen asbestos exposure. These same researchers, who work at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, say the maximum allowable workplace level should be .1 fiber.
Despite that recommendation, the official federal and state standard for work places remains 2 fibers per cubic centimeter.
Asbestos is a known cause of cancer and other respiratory illnesses. As with cigarette smoking, the probability of getting an asbestos-related disease increases in proportion to length and level of exposure, many scientists say.
Officials for the Federal Employes Metal Trades Council said neither union officials nor Navy families knew asbestos had been used on furnaces or water heaters in most local Navy dwellings until a worker complained of asbestos exposure in September and insulation samples from four houses were tested by the shipyard.
Kalal has confirmed that asbestos insulation was used on heating systems or elsewhere in about 66% of the Navy's 1,990 dwellings in the Long Beach area.
Specifically, the presence of asbestos has been confirmed in the Cabrillo and Savannah housing projects on Long Beach's Westside, in the Taper Avenue complex in San Pedro, in the White's Point officer housing in San Pedro, and probably in eight old housing units at the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, said Kalal.
Asbestos was not used in housing at the Los Alamitos Naval Air Station, at the Long Beach Naval Hospital quarters, in 200 new units in Seal Beach, or in the John Montgomery Street complex in San Pedro, he said.
Two More Weeks of Tests
Further tests for both airborne asbestos and the presence of asbestos insulation will probably continue for about two weeks "to improve the statistical validity" of the Navy's sample, said Kalal. In all, about 12 dwellings will be tested for airborne asbestos, he said.
"I'm confident about the housing we've got out there," said Kalal. "It might be a problem in 10 years, but we intend to eliminate all asbestos during renovation over the next five years. That will bring the level down to zero."
Environmental health specialists nationwide have warned that the use of asbestos on home furances and heating ducts could create a health hazard as asbestos deteriorates and is inhaled.
But the level of the risk remains unclear, because very little testing has been done to determine the amount of asbestos heating systems may release.
Government and private researchers generally agree, however, that asbestos insulation is much more dangerous when old and brittle or when it is handled. About 400 of the Navy's dwellings in this area, the Savannah and transient-housing units north of the Pacific Coast Highway on Long Beach's Westside, were built in 1940. All others were constructed after 1963, according to Kalal. The Navy plans to tear down and replace the 1940-vintage housing within the next three years, he said.
Kalal said his personal inspection of about 20 Navy dwellings indicates that asbestos insulation in Navy housing is generally in good shape. But that contention is disputed by officials at the shipyard's Metal Trades Council, whose members maintain the housing.
Classes on Asbestos Handling
The shipyard, responding to the Trades Council grievance and media attention, has held training classes on asbestos handling in recent days for the 20 Navy housing maintenance workers, said Trades Council president Frank Rodriguez.
"They've showed some of our guys a movie on asbestos," Rodriguez said. He added that they are going to meet with employees to talk about asbestos and give respirator training.
Shipyard workers are required to wear respirators and protective clothing when working with asbestos.
"The way they're going with this testing and training, there's going to be very little left to grieve," said Rodriguez. "Now they're paying attention to the employees."