The federal government owns vacant office space and other real estate across the country. According to the Government Accountability Office, more than two-thirds of these properties may be laced with asbestos.

Asbestos Removal in Public Buildings

The Societal Costs of Not Removing Asbestos are Higher than Undertaking Abatement

“Federal accounting standards require agencies responsible for environmental contamination to estimate future environmental cleanup costs and to report such costs as environmental liabilities in their annual financial statements,” the report notes. Ninety-five percent of the GSA’s liabilities are sorted into asbestos and non-asbestos-related. Its liability estimates have ranged in recent years from $1.8 billion to $2 billion annually.

Because the danger arises from disturbing it, though, it’s not always necessary to remove existing asbestos. “Undamaged asbestos that is properly managed in place poses little health risk,” according to the EPA. In fact, “If done improperly, removing asbestos has the potential to create a greater health risk than leaving it undisturbed.” 

Importance of an asbestos inspection

As such, GSA policy “requires a baseline asbestos inspection for each building built before 1998, along with re-inspection surveys every five years, unless a previous inspection indicates no asbestos in the building,” according to the GAO report. “The policy also requires annual surveillance of buildings with asbestos, which is the process of walking through a facility and visually noting any changes in asbestos condition.”

But the report concluded that the “GSA has not completed asbestos inspections required by its asbestos management policy for approximately two-thirds of buildings within the last five years.” In fact, of the 410 buildings surveyed whose last inspection was more than five years ago, “214 last had an inspection more than ten years ago.”

Asbestos in Buildings

About 75 percent of the commercial buildings in the United States, including government-owned buildings, were constructed before a partial asbestos ban took effect in 1990. Domestic asbestos mining was legal until 2002. So, builders packed commercial structures with cheap asbestos, mostly in:

  • Attic insulation,
  • Ceiling tiles,
  • Electrical wiring insulation,
  • Floor tiles,
  • Drywall, 
  • Concrete water pipes, and
  • Plumbing insulation.

The same thing is true of homes. A similar percentage of single-family homes and multi-family dwellings were built before 1980. The aforementioned partial asbestos ban mostly affected some government buildings, such as schools. Therefore, many residential construction companies kept using asbestos until 2002, when the mining ban drove up prices.

Therefore, if a building was constructed before 1990, it almost certainly has asbestos, unless it was properly removed. 

If the construction date was between 1990 and 2002, unless the building was used as a school, it probably contains asbestos.

This highly toxic substance has been linked to a number of serious illnesses that are usually fatal. More on that below.

Asbestos in manufactured parts, such as auto parts, was almost as common. Asbestos doesn’t conduct heat. Therefore, it was the primary ingredient in auto parts exposed to high heat, such as hood liners and brake pads. Even today, many of these parts contain asbestos, especially if they’re imported from China, where asbestos mining and use is still fully legal.

The people who lived or worked in these buildings also risked asbestos exposure, as are the people who lived or worked near these buildings. Microscopic asbestos fibers usually float for at least seventy-two hours.

Health Effects of Asbestos

Tiny asbestos fibers are highly toxic and cause many serious illnesses that, in most cases, are fatal. Because these diseases are so serious, and also because asbestos companies covered up the health risks for several decades, an asbestos exposure lawyer can obtain substantial compensation for these victims and survivors. These diseases usually match the aforementioned risk categories.


Construction workers usually wore little or no PPE (personal protective equipment) when they handled the aforementioned asbestos-laced products. Inhaled or absorbed fibers could cause pleural mesothelioma (PlM) or peritoneal mesothelioma (PtM).

Both kinds of cancer involve tumors in the meso lining that usually surrounds internal organs, such as the abdomen and lung. 

These two kinds of mesothelioma also have very long latency periods. Usually, victims are sick for at least a half-century before they show physical signs of cancer, such as drastic weight loss and chronic fatigue. Since the early treatment window has closed, traditional cancer treatments are normally ineffective. Chemotherapy drugs are a good example.

These drugs usually kill fast-dividing cells, including cancer cells. However, once tumors metastasize, chemotherapy drugs can’t kill all these cells, unless doctors use unhealthy doses of this powerful medication.

PtM is a bit different regarding chemotherapy drugs. Hyperthermic (or Heated) Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy (HIPEC) is often effective. Doctors superheat chemotherapy drugs and inject them directly into the abdomen.

La Asbestosis

Industrial workers develop this lung disease at alarming rates. These individuals worked in asbestos-laced buildings while they handled asbestos-laced products.

Toxic asbestos fibers not only alter cellular DNA. They also burn human tissues, such as the tissue inside narrow breathing passageways in the lungs. The burning creates scar tissue that eventually blocks these airways.

The asbestosis latency period is about as long as the mesothelioma latency period. 

So, when initial asbestosis symptoms appear, such as trouble breathing, victims, as well as their doctors, often ascribe such symptoms to “getting older.”

So, once again, the early treatment window closes. So, in many cases, a radical lung transplant is the only possible alternative. Many asbestosis victims are too old and frail to tolerate such risky procedures.

On a related note, if a non-exposure condition, like cigarette smoking, contributed to the victim’s asbestosis or other illness, maximum compensation is usually still available. While tobacco smoking remains the principal cause for lung cancers, exposure to asbestos is the most important occupational risk factor for these cancers.

Cervical Cancer

In 2021, the CDC announced that in the past two decades, the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma rate in women went up, and was still being under-reported. One big reason for this is that one in five of the women with mesothelioma described themselves as homemakers, people who had no reason to suspect they were being exposed.

Cervical cancer may be an even larger indirect risk for women. Stray asbestos fibers often taint cosmetic products, especially talcum powder. Talc and asbestos minerals are usually intermingled underground.

These asbestos fibers often moved up the fallopian tubes to the cervix. In 2023, Johnson & Johnson agreed to settle some talcum powder-cervical cancer claims for $8.9 billion. Many others are still pending, so an asbestos exposure lawyer may still be able to help.

The Abate or Don’t Abate Debate

We concluded this post with a few words about the rights and obligations of property owners. The Supreme Court undercut one of the best property owner defenses in this area. So, in most states, these owners could be liable for damages in these cases, even if they didn’t actually know the building contained asbestos.

Abatement is usually a three-step process that begins with an air test. 

If the asbestos level is higher than 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter, property owners must proceed to the next step. If it’s lower, they probably should consider advanced abatement as well, for liability and peace of mind reasons. There’s no safe asbestos exposure level.

Advanced abatement means removing the asbestos and safely disposing of it. Local and state environmental protection offices usually have contractor databases.