KXAN is an Austin, Texas NBC affiiate providing in-depth investigative reporting through their nine-member team, KXAN Investigates. The Austin-Bergstrom International Airport’s (ABIA) Maintenance Complex Building became a target for the team when airport personnel revealed health and safety concerns to the group. Intensive investigation led to finding substantial asbestos contamination in these offices during the 2016 floor renovations.
How it began
In February of 2016, when a team of eight workers began tearing out carpet and tile in the building, the work exposed a black mastic used as an industrial adhesive. An employee walking past, experienced in construction, saw this and told the workers, “Stop immediately and mark this area off as ‘do not disturb.’ I’ve seen this stuff before. It looks like black tar, which had dried long ago and was very brittle, and when they scraped the floor and break this stuff up, part of it becomes dust and gets into the air. When it gets into the air, it affects everybody in the building, not just those guys working on it.” He reported his concerns about possible asbestos in the black mastic to ABIA management, but within days the work resumed. In fact, more flooring renovation work was performed in June within the same building.
When city and airport officials did not stop to check for asbestos, employees contacted KXAN for assistance. At first, the Department of Aviation denied that employees reported this potential health hazard, but later admitted employees had come forward.
The reasoning for not stopping to check for asbestos hinged on a 2004 building survey that did not report any asbestos in the renovation areas. This survey guided decisions until a report came back from mold and asbestos tests that were performed in May, 2016, after a flood. In July, the first test results showed there was asbestos in the building. The city ordered a second test on the air. This one showed no asbestos in August – six months after the first reported warning. Finally, in September, the Department of Aviation notified the city’s Building Services Department of an “accidental disturbance” of asbestos-containing materials and necessary “expedited decontamination.” At that same time, 120 employees were alerted to the contamination and advised to complete medical surveys.
The KXAN investigation forced the ABIA and the city to admit their culpability in ignoring and denying workers’ warnings about possible asbestos exposure. Now all buildings on the property will be tested for asbestos, a training program for all employees on recognizing possible hazards like mold and asbestos will be initiated. In addition, the eight workers directly impacted by asbestos exposure were offered lifetime annual health checkups. One employee said, “The people who run the airport put people in danger that they knew about, put them in hazardous areas and told them that they would be safe. I am concerned for everybody’s health who was in the building.”
Why asbestos is a concern
There is no safe level of asbestos exposure. This is a natural mineral containing microscopic fibers that can be inhaled and cause diseases such as lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma, a deadly cancer. While asbestos-containing materials pose little risk while undisturbed, anything that breaks the surface or otherwise allows the fibers to become airborne can create deadly problems in the future.