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Former Genesee County Michigan Worker Reveals Alleged Improper Asbestos Removal
In Michigan, Ray Barker II, a former employee of the Genesee County Community Action Resource Department (GCCARD), is claiming that the department put workers and the public at risk by improperly removing asbestos from homes.
The Genesee County Community Action Resource Department, through the Home Maintenance Services Program, provides help for low income homeowners and renters by assessing energy needs and delivering weatherization improvements to cut energy use. These weatherization measures include attic insulation, windows and doors, furnace inspection and cleaning, and hot water heater “blankets”.
According to Barker, a resident of North Branch (55 miles northeast of Flint), he and other GCCARD employees encountered unacceptable levels of asbestos when helping insulate attics during 2009.
Barker reportedly tried to make his superiors at the agency aware of the dangers, not only of asbestos, but of equipment designed to spray insulation into attics – equipment that Barker charges was powerful enough to turn the asbestos into a dust cloud and scatter it throughout the homes the department was working on.
Steve Walker, GCCARD executive director, has denied Barker’s story in every aspect. First, he says, Barker was let go at the end of a six month probationary period because he was unable to comply with training procedures.
Second, Walker denies that any of the workers, including Barker, encountered asbestos on the job in amounts that exceeded the established safety threshold of one percent set by the Michigan Occupational Safety & Health Administration, or MIOSHA.
Walker is supported in his contention by MIOSHA Construction Safety Health Division Manager Bill DeLiefde, who noted that vermiculite (used for insulation in homes during most of the last century, and the substance Barker and his co-workers likely encountered) typically doesn’t contain more than one percent asbestos.
GCCARD operates by using federal grant money, typically under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. The department retrofitted 600 homes in 2009, at least 75 of them by adding insulation. Barker, who says the department ignored its own field manual (which specifies moving on to another property when asbestos is encountered), is taking the case to Genesee County Circuit Court.
Walker, who says the department does stop work when asbestos is suspected – primarily to analyze the nature and extent of the substance – also noted that workers discovering asbestos routinely take precautions like closing door and windows, wearing protective clothing like respirators, disposable coveralls and shoe covers, and in general following protocols designed to minimize asbestos dangers.
According to Walker, asbestos (and asbestos-containing vermiculite) are not substances that are blown away easily, though in fact asbestos fibers – at 100 times the size of a human hair – are in fact readily dispersed into the air.
Once airborne, these microscopic fibers can find their way into the respiratory system by breathing – or into the digestive system merely by swallowing saliva. There, they can remain for years, even decades, causing lesions in tissue that can eventually become cancerous.
Besides small cell and non-small cell lung and digestive system cancers, asbestos also causes mesothelioma, a lethal cancer of the protective tissues that surround the lungs, heart and abdominal organs.
Mesothelioma, which produces almost no definitive symptoms during the first decade or two, eventually blooms into a fast-acting tumor that commonly results in death within a year of diagnosis.
According to experts, 10,000 Americans still die every year of asbestos-related diseases. Twenty five hundred of these deaths are diagnosed as mesothelioma. This, even though asbestos use in the U.S. has fallen from a high of 885,000 tons in 1973 to 1,609 tons in 2008.
The houses targeted in Barker’s lawsuit are almost entirely on
the north and east side of Flint, in the city’s most impoverished