UN Reassures Workers Worried about Asbestos Removal

“New York—A $2 billion renovation project at the United Nations headquarters is worrying some employees, mostly because of asbestos-contaminated ceiling tiles that must be removed from the building.

President of the U.N. staff union, Stephen Kisambira, called a rare news conference last week to express concerns on behalf of U.N. workers that the asbestos abatement will not be carried out safely and effectively.
The construction manager in the project, Skanska USA Building, will be overseeing the removal of asbestos. Kisambira pointed to an ongoing legal case involving Skanska’s allegedly negligent asbestos abatement efforts in a Salinas, CA courthouse. That abatement took place in 2005-2006, and a spokesperson for Skanska acknowledged that there are almost 200 personal injury suits still pending in the courthouse case.

Complicating the matter even further is the fact that the U.N., which is technically not United States territory despite its location in New York, has special legal status. This status would prevent workers or residents from bringing lawsuits against the contractors working on the abatement. Should anyone contract a disease which they believe is directly related to the renovation, they will be allowed to pursue arbitration but not litigation.

Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma, a rare but deadly cancer which affects the tissues surrounding the lungs and other organs. It can also lead to other cancers, as well as asbestosis and pleural disease. Exposure to the substance, which contains millions of razor-sharp, microscopic fibers, can occur when building materials containing it are destroyed or removed.

Asbestos has been used in numerous construction projects since the early 20th century, because it is lightweight and easily incorporated into building substances, and because of its extreme resistance to heat, electricity, fire, salt-water corrosion, and other chemical and biological processes.

Proper precautions and safety measures are mandated by federal law in any construction, renovation or demolition project involving asbestos-containing materials.

United Nations spokesperson Farhaq Haq assured reporters that the abatement will be performed safely. “We will have another independent group that will monitor how the abatement process is carried out,” he said.

Architect Michael Adlerstein added that ATC Associates, an independent environmental engineering, health and safety specialist, will be “taking air samples several times a day at prescribed locations inside and outside the work area.”

The renovation project of the landmark New York building is expected to make the facility safe, more comfortable, and more environmentally friendly.”