Workers today are expected to begin cleaning up asbestos contamination at the 288-unit Pacific Plaza Apartments in Santa Monica.
County health officials Friday warned the building's 300 residents to avoid dust that may contain deadly asbestos fibers--which have been linked to an increased rate of cancer--but did not order the building evacuated.
Health officials said they did not call for an evacuation because the amount of airborne fibers present did not pose an immediate health threat to tenants.
But many residents remain worried about living in a contaminated building until the cleanup, which is expected to take a week, is completed.
"I'm angry. Of course I feel at risk," resident Phyllis White said. "I'm going to buy one of those little masks to wear while walking through the halls."
Asbestos fibers were disturbed when workers began cutting through hallway ceiling panels to install a city-mandated fire sprinkler system. Work had been in progress for two weeks before it was halted by the state last Thursday, building manager Joy O'Connell said.
An unidentified tenant called the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration last Tuesday and complained that workers cutting through the panels were spreading asbestos fibers through the building, Judith Singer, a spokeswoman for Cal OSHA, said.
State inspectors collected air samples last Thursday, she said. Friday the county was notified that a sample taken on the fifth floor of the 15-story building contained asbestos fibers.
On Saturday the state officially ordered work on the building to cease, Singer said. She said the state's order applied only to the workers in the building because Cal OSHA does not have authority over residences.
Although county officials agreed that exposure to asbestos poses a long-term health risk, they said they can order an evacuation only under certain circumstances.
"An evacuation order can only be issued if there is an imminent and substantial public health threat," said Bill Jones, a senior industrial hygienist for the county Health Department. "The threat isn't imminent because it has been going on for two weeks.
"The exposure at this point is relative in terms of how much additional exposure (tenants) could get," Jones said. "It is a matter of probability as to whether staying further will increase the risk of cancer."
Last Friday copies of the county health advisory were taped to tenants' mailboxes in the building, at 1431 Ocean Ave. The warning urged tenants to minimize their exposure to asbestos particles in the building.
"When you have an imminent health hazard people are evacuated because of the impending problem," Joe Karbus, head of occupational health and radiation management for the county, said. "But in this case the potential for a low risk over a long-term basis justified the advisory. Our medical people concluded an advisory was appropriate under the circumstances."
Asbestos was commonly used as a fire retardant and insulation material until 1977. Damage from inhalation of asbestos fibers can often take as long as 15 years to manifest itself. One resident in his 30s, who did not want to be identified, said the building's younger residents had the most to worry about.
"Half the residents in this building are elderly. But in younger residents, this asbestos may show up 15 years from now. By that time I'll probably be somewhere else and there will be no way to connect any health problems with this building."
The health advisory warned people not to remain in areas of the building that contained dust, not to stir up dust, to keep children away from dusty areas and to quit smoking so as to reduce their future cancer risk.
The advisory also stated that "asbestos has been linked to a somewhat greater risk of cancer after many years." The increased risk of cancer was estimated at "one chance in 10,000 or less" for every week of exposure.
One Tenant Moved
Since the county advisory was issued Friday, only one tenant had moved, O'Connell said.
The Red Cross was prepared to house tenants at a Santa Monica high school, but no one came forward to ask for temporary shelter, Ray Corvan, executive director of the Red Cross' Santa Monica chapter, said.
County hygienist Jones said the county might have acted differently if tenants had not already been exposed to asbestos for two weeks by the time officials confirmed that the problem existed.
"We made a judgment call on Friday afternoon," Jones said, "and issued an advisory as opposed to an order.
"Whatever exposure they are going to get they have probably already gotten, so ordering them out now would only create confusion on where to put people."
Part of the difficulty confronting county health officials is the lack of standards for residential exposure to asbestos, Jones said.
"The industrial standard is 2 fibers per cubic centimeter over an eight-hour period in a work situation," Jones said. The sample taken at the apartment building was 0.18 fibers.
"But the standard is not applicable to a residential situation where people are there 24 hours."
Dr. Paul Papanek, chief of toxic epidemiology for the county, said the county decided that "if the risk was low, we would issue an advisory and let people make a decision for themselves."
If the amount of asbestos found had exceeded the workplace standard of 2 fibers per cubic centimeter set by the state, the county probably would have closed the building, he said.
A residential standard for asbestos exposure "certainly would be helpful," he said. "Then the problem would just be one of measurement, not policy."