Here on Full Measure, we’ve already reported on potentially dangerous asbestos still being used in common products. Today, another asbestos hazard involving our military vets. It turns out the cancer-causing materials are being found in V-A centers exposing veterans, visitors, and on site workers. One whistleblower tells Sharyl what happened when he tried to expose it.
Rob DiGregorio is a combat veteran and now an electrician at the V-A Memorial Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts. In August 2014, he made a surprising discovery... One he says that put him in the path of reprisals and turned him into a whistleblower. It began when he was sent to the basement of one building at the V-A Center to do some work. He began finding insulation made of cancer-causing asbestos in one building after another.
Sharyl: Does that imply that asbestos could be, people could be exposed to asbestos who are working in there or living in there?
DiGregorio: Absolutely. Absolutely.
A contractor was called in to remove or safely seal the asbestos and keep dangerous fibers from becoming airborne — where people can inhale it.
DiGregorio: But that wasn't the end of the story. The following week, I got a report from one of the employees in our department that there may be asbestos in Building 19.
With the second discovery, DiGregorio contacted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, which oversees workplace safety. An inspector found more possible hazards.
DiGregorio: We went to numerous locations, Building 2, Building 19. I believe Building 6. I guess the way to explain the asbestos situation around here is, it's actually easier to say where the asbestos isn't than where it is.
As the scope of the problem grew instead of properly addressing the asbestos, DiGregorio says officials at the V-A began retaliating against him.
DiGregorio: I started to take pictures throughout the facility.
Sharyl: Did someone, at some point, tell you to stop, or that this was none of your business, or what happened?
DiGregorio: Yes, they did. Quite so. But I was trying to protect the patients. I was trying to protect the visitors. And I was, most importantly, I was trying to protect the employees in Engineering like myself. When these dirt crawlspaces are accessed, you have to leave the door open for airflow. So if anybody is in there kicking up the dirt and it's asbestos, it's going into the hallway. Anybody walking by the hallway, or through the hallway, whether it be a patient, an employee, management, a visitor, we're all potentially getting exposed to asbestos.
In December 2016, DiGregorio complained to the federal Office of Special Counsel, which protects whistleblowers. Their investigation proved DiGregorio correct. V-A employees in Bedford Massachusetts were put at risk of asbestos fiber exposure due to “poor program management” that failed to follow agency policy. And veterans engaged in work that may have exposed them to asbestos fibers.
Henry Kerner is Special Counsel.
Sharyl: People may not understand how deadly this is, or that it can be for those who are exposed over a long term period, not right away necessarily, but many years down the road.
Henry Kerner: Correct. So, you won't know immediately. It's not like a cold that 48 hours later you're coughing. They may show up later, and they're sometimes hard to diagnose. So, it's very important that the federal government do its best to protect its workforce, and the veterans in this case too, who work there, from exposure.
But Bedford, Massachusetts wasn’t the V-A’s only asbestos problem. The Special Counsel also heard from a whistleblower who reported an “abnormality” or health problem at a V-A Hospital in San Antonio, Texas.
Kerner: And it showed an abnormality that was likely related to asbestos. Yet, even though that was shown, the V-A still let that person go into hazardous conditions. They didn't mark off the buildings. They once again violated their own procedures. And, also in that case, OSHA had done a site inspection. And, once again they found that there was danger, in terms of asbestos and it was also ignored by the V-A.
Sharyl: If this happened in two instances that we know of, is there reason to be concerned that this may have happened or be happening in other V-A buildings?
Henry Kerner:Yes. It is not completely insane to think that out of the other 150 buildings, and that's just the medical centers plus 1,400 community based clinics, there might be some asbestos there too. And there might be renovation projects that might expose both the employees as well as some of the veterans who work there to danger.
That concern recently prompted Kerner to notify V-A Secretary Robert Wilkie that asbestos exposure could represent a systemic health hazard at VA facilities nationwide. The V-A Centers in Bedford and San Antonio are now implementing fixes from hiring to training and safety enforcement. Only time will reveal whether DiGregorio and others will suffer health problems from asbestos exposure.
Rob DiGregorio: I worry about myself. I worry about my wife. Also, if any of us men in Engineering go home and shake this stuff off of our clothes, any dirt or whatever, if there's any asbestos particles, which there very well could be, that's not possible, that's probable-
Sharyl: That was being passed on to family members?
Rob DiGregorio: Correct. And here's where the issue lies, children and grandchildren. Children and young teenagers are also at a higher risk of increased asbestos exposure incubation because they're not fully developed. This is a story of a broken system that needs transparency. There are better ways to do things. And it's about taking care of the Veterans. They deserve better.
We reached out to the VA for comment. A spokesman told us the asbestos problems happened under previous leadership, and that the V-A center in Bedford, Massachusetts is on a new path, now ranking among the VA's top facilities.