Interior Department headquarters reopens after asbestos scare

The Interior Department headquarters reopened Monday morning after officials determined that the elevated asbestos levels that caused a shutdown of the building on Friday were confined to the cafeteria and an adjoining office supply store.

On Friday, more than 2,000 Interior Department employees were forced to evacuate the building, located at 18th and C Streets NW in Washington, after routine air quality tests unearthed elevated asbestos levels in a mechanical room connected to the cafeteria and the Office Eagle Store through a vent. Workers are removing asbestos from pipes and electrical systems close to the mechanical room as part of a 10-month renovation project.

Since a ventilation system links the mechanical room to some offices on the first and second floor in addition to the cafeteria area, officials from the General Services Administration decided to close the entire main Interior building on Friday as a precautionary measure.

Seventeen contract employees work in the cafeteria and store. The cafeteria will be closed while it undergoes a thorough cleaning and further tests.

A spokeswoman for GSA said such incidents in federal buildings are rare.

People who have extensive and prolonged exposure to asbestos are at a higher risk of lung cancer. But according to the National Cancer Institute Web site, most people are "exposed to asbestos at some time during their life. However, most people do not become ill from their exposure. People who become ill from asbestos are usually those who are exposed to it on a regular basis, most often in a job where they work directly with the material or through substantial environmental contact."

Investigators collected extensive air samples from rooms throughout the main Interior building over the weekend and, after testing them by two separate methods, deemed the building safe, with the exception of the cafeteria. The sample showed either no asbestos fibers, or fibers within the acceptable standard of 0.01 per cubic centimeter set by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to the Interior Department.

Interior spokesman John Wright said the 68-year-old building has never been evacuated before because of asbestos concerns. Routine tests conducted by GSA in late August and early September did not give any indication of abnormal asbestos levels.

Crews started cleaning the affected area using "high-efficiency particulate air vacuuming" techniques designed to pick up more than 99 percent of asbestos particles on surfaces. After the cleaning is complete, GSA will order additional air quality tests.

Interior officials were unable to provide a time frame for the cleanup effort. Wright said the cleanup was "going well," and that the department would provide employees with information on the exact levels of asbestos found in the building.

Office workers did not shy away from returning to the building Monday, according to Wright. The department set up an information session to brief employees on asbestos and answer questions on potential health risks. Contract workers in the cafeteria and store attended a separate session, where they discussed contingency plans in case the cleanup effort displaces them for a long time.

The Interior Department also set up a temporary hotline in case workers have more questions. Employees can call 202-513-7750 for more information, or submit questions by e-mail to asbestos?