Portland Area Residents Fear Asbestos Exposure From Mismanaged Demolition Projects

Posted on October 20, 2015

Construction and demolition companies have a duty to protect the public from any hazards that could be encountered on a project. That includes protecting the public from asbestos – a known carcinogen that can lead to mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other debilitating diseases. Unfortunately, residents of Portland, Oregon may have been exposed to the dangerous mineral when an untold number of homes were destroyed without appropriate safety precautions in place.

Although asbestos is no longer used in home construction, the product was widely used until the 1980s in almost all phases of the construction industry. Known for its strength and durability, asbestos was used in floor and ceiling tiles, insulation, fireproofing, ceiling texture and panel products, and soundproofing. Almost every part of an older home could potentially have asbestos hiding within it.

OregonLive reporters, concerned with the public’s safety, set out to find out just how rampant the violations were. After months of research they found that “33 percent of homes demolished in Portland between 2011 and 2014 had asbestos removed.” That is a far cry from what experts say “should have been closer to 80 to 90 percent,” according to the Oct. 8 article. Approximately 350 homes were reportedly torn down containing asbestos.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the State organization responsible for the safe management of asbestos, notes: “Before any public or private facility is demolished, all ACM [asbestos-containing materials] must be properly abated. Abatement includes handle, remove, dispose, repair, salvage, enclosure or encapsulation of any ACM.”

According to the Oregon DEQ guidelines, “If you disturb or mishandle ACM and cause the public or the environment to be potentially exposed to asbestos fibers, you can be liable for clean-up costs and an enforcement action for rule violations. An enforcement action may include a civil penalty assessment.”

However, OregonLive reported on Sept. 25 the DEQ does little to enforce these rules, and demolition work proceeds without following any of the guidelines. OregonLive approached DEQ officials and questioned them about the Portland homes. The official responded, saying, in part, “Public health is protected when asbestos removal and disposal are done properly and in accordance with DEQ requirements. DEQ works to ensure compliance with our regulations through complaint response, inspections, and by licensing abatement contractors.”

The Portland area is undergoing a growth boom, according to OregonLive, where “hundreds of old houses likely to contain the cancer-causing substance” are being razed. The number of demolition permits issued in 2014 was higher than at any time during the past decade, making oversight critical. But, just when asbestos management is most important, the only DEQ asbestos inspector position in the region, that includes Portland, has been vacant for three years, according to the OregonLive.

The asbestos concerns were first raised by an Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association official who approached a demolition foreman asking for appropriate papers confirming asbestos was not present in a house being torn down. The woman then called state officials who immediately came to the site. Subsequently, asbestos was found resulting in fines to various companies and a required asbestos abatement project.

“The only reason they got caught in this situation was because a neighbor made a phone call,” said the woman.

“One would like to think that we’re all OK,” said one neighbor. “But you know, who knows?”

DEQ officials said the agency plans to “evaluate and update” its asbestos rules next year, according to OregonLive.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. With a decades-long latency period, anyone who is exposed to the material is at a lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma. Nearly 3,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with the terminal cancer.

Photo Credit: The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality