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Asbestos Casts Gloom Over Courthouse

February 05, 1989|JENIFER WARREN | Times Staff Writer

Dusk is settling over Judge Richard Hanscom's courtroom, and it's not a pretty sight. One by one, the light bulbs in the ceiling panels that illuminate Department 4 of the San Diego Municipal Court have been burning out, gradually shrouding the jurors, lawyers and defendants who meet there in a gathering gloom.

"We haven't gotten to the point of bringing in lamps or candles, but it's noticeably dimmer in here," Hanscom said recently as he surveyed the gloaming.

Weeks ago, the judge summoned maintenance workers to replace the lights, but no one responded. Recently he found out why: Asbestos lurks in the crawl space above the ceiling tiles, and workers have been barred from doing anything that might dislodge the material, which is hazardous if inhaled in dust form.

Stalled Indefinitely

Dwindling light is only one of the myriad troubles engendered by the discovery late last year that the aging downtown courthouse--like many other buildings of its vintage--is infested with asbestos, popular in the 1960s as an insulation material because of its remarkable fire-retardant qualities.

Projects at the courthouse, ranging from office remodelings to the installation of computer and telephone systems, have been stalled indefinitely by the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has restricted such work until the asbestos is either removed, encapsulated or found to pose no health threat.

Besides the operational headaches, the courthouse staff is on edge. Clerks, court reporters, marshals and even some judges say the asbestos problem has made working in an already stressful environment even more nerve-racking.

"We haven't had a mutiny yet, but the staff members are definitely anxious," Presiding Superior Court Judge Michael Greer said. "They have a right to be."

Last month, the county Board of Supervisors authorized funds for a $100,000 survey to determine how much asbestos is in the 663,000-square-foot courthouse and to develop training programs for maintenance employees who may work near the material.

Lengthy Process

The assessment alone could take as long as three months. And, if removal, repair or encasing of any asbestos is warranted, resolution of the problem could take still longer, county officials said.

Meanwhile, employees at the courthouse are restless--and skeptical of the county's claims that it considers the situation a priority. Worried that their health could be the price of what some view as bureaucratic foot-dragging, these workers have formed a committee to press for action. A representative of the Police Officers Assn., whose members spend long hours in courtrooms testifying as witnesses, has joined the cause.

"I believe I've been sitting in here breathing asbestos dust off and on for over two years, and I'm extremely concerned about it," said Cynthia Vandervort, a court reporter and committee member. "I think our purpose is to serve as a sort of watchdog to make sure the county acts on this immediately."

The trouble at 220 W. Broadway erupted Oct. 12, when a janitor found that a chunk of material resembling asbestos had tumbled into a rooftop ventilation unit that breathes air into more than a dozen courtrooms.

Officials with the county's Environmental Health Services Department were notified immediately, and tests confirmed that the material did contain asbestos, which was banned in 1979 and is known to cause asbestosis, lung cancer and a rare form of cancer called mesotheliomia.

Because of concerns that the unit may have pumped asbestos fibers into the courtrooms, air samples were taken. Results of those tests were negative, but asbestos fibers were found in another set of samples taken from dust on bookcases and other furniture in two courtrooms, according to Larry Marshall, chief of the county's Occupational and Radiological Health Division.

Also Found in Carpeting

"Apparently, this surface contamination had occurred because maintenance activity scraped asbestos material in the ceiling, causing it to drop down," Marshall said.

Asbestos was also detected in the carpeting, but Marshall said that was not a concern because carpet acts like a magnet, trapping the hazardous fibers in a grip not even a vacuum cleaner can break.

As news of the discovery spread, nervous employees began to telephone Cal-OSHA authorities, expressing concern about their safety. A series of inspections confirmed the county's findings, and state officials found the situation serious enough to issue a "yellow tag" citation, prohibiting work that might dislodge more asbestos.

"In one courtroom, we found that asbestos material had been flaking down from the ceiling, and that the spillage had not been cleaned up properly," said Richard Stephens, a Cal-OSHA spokesman in San Francisco. "We're not saying that there is a particular danger to the public in using the building. But we don't want workers going in those crawl spaces unless it is absolutely necessary."

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