Skip to Content Top

A Killer Lurks Below


By James G. Zumwalt
May 16, 2007

This story has all the elements of a science fiction movie. It takes place in an endless labyrinth of tunnels, within which lurks a silent but deadly killer. This killer generates fear among brave men, causing many to decide not to venture below ground. But some, despite their fear, have no choice but to do so, praying they won't encounter the killer, but well knowing It may already be too late. Sadly, this story is not science fiction. Itis taking place in the bowels of a building in the heart of Washington D.C. whose occupants have at their disposal the only means by which to slay the killer -- yet have failed to do so.

Below Capitol Hill run five miles of underground utility tunnels. A crew of 10 men work these tunnels -- some for over 20 years -- to keep the office environment in the buildings above ground comfortable for our working members of Congress. Such comfort is quite a contrast to the working environment within the tunnels themselves. As described by maintenance supervisor John Thayer, "Temperatures can get up to 160 degrees, big slabs of concrete fall from the ceilings and the cramped passages are thick with welding fumes."

While the job of these maintenance workers gives them no choice but to go down and work in these catacombs, others, such as the Capitol Hill police, refuse to patrol them. Local fire departments will not venture into the tunnels to attempt an emergency rescue. For they know the killer within the tunnels awaits its next victim, instilling fear inall who dare enter.

To understand that fear, one must first understand the killer. For ever since its existence has been known, no one has yet slain it. The killer is asbestos.

Built long before many Capitol Hill occupants were even born, the tunnels have slowly been deteriorating ever since. As slabs of concrete fall to the ground, they turn into pulverized asbestos and cement dust. Asbestos fibers are released into the air, where maintenance workers inhale them on a daily basis. While exposure is more concentrated and regular for these workers due to the confined spaces in which they must labor, asbestosis also sucked out through tunnel exhaust fans, poisoning the air above ground.

Of the 10 maintenance workers mentioned, nine now have asthma, requiring treatment; seven have asbestosis; all have elevated risks of lung cancer, colon cancer and mesothelioma -- an incurable cancer of the lining of the lungs or abdominal cavity. A diagnosis of mesothelioma is a death sentence,usually carried out within four to 14 months.

One would think sitting underneath the legislative bastion entrusted to pass laws to protect the health, safety and welfare of citizen-workers, the tunnels of Capitol Hill would be among the safest places in which to work. But Mr. Thayer's testimony indicates the tunnels are unsafe and have been for years. Cries for help by those below ground to those directly above them to improve working conditions have fallen on deaf ears. For those who work in them, the tunnels have become a breeding ground for various forms of lung disease and respiratory problems.

For readers who may feel this is a very limited health issue -- think again. We will, within the next quarter-century and beyond, experience cases of mesothelioma and asbestos is of epidemic proportions. The final tally of September 11, 2001 victims is still out, for when the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon collapsed, millions of asbestos fibers were released into the air. Those fibers were unwarily inhaled by a countless number of New York City and Washington D.C. residents. As mesothelioma takes decades to manifest itself, we will gradually see an increase, and then a spike, in this disease. Without a cure and without a commitment by Congress to commit funding to research for mesothelioma now, thousands of victims will die painful deaths as their lungs continuously fill,causing them eventually to drown in a sea of their own fluids.

It is not as if we just recently discovered the lethality of asbestos. Health problems associated with asbestos use were first written about in the first century A.D. by a Roman author who described "diseases of slaves" linked to the textile process of preparing and weaving asbestos and flax. Yet two millennia later we are no closer to treating this terrible disease.

In addition to funding and finding a cure for mesothelioma, another important step needs to be taken -- passing legislation to ban the manufacture, processing and distribution of products containing asbestos in the U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, has stepped up to the plate both on the issue of a ban and the matter of research funding. First introduced in 2002, the bill has yet to be enacted as Congress continues to drag its feet. Each day Congress hesitates to act on Sen. Murray's bill brings us a day closer to the impending epidemic -- and another day without research for a cure will have passed.

Congress seems ready, willing and able to spend time on silly initiatives such as a proposed bill to ban the term "global war on terror." Such a ban will have absolutely no impact on the daily lives of Americans. Meanwhile,lives will continue to be lost if a similar ban on asbestos in the U.S., along with funding for research, does not become the law of land. Such a law just might give the victims laboring beneath the feet of our Congress members a fighting chance.

James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times. In 2000, he lost his father to mesothelioma.