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Asbestos in the House of Dr. Thornton

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August 31, 2006

Sponsored by the American Cancer Center


Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer in which malignant (cancerous) cells are found in the mesothelium, a protective sac that covers most of the body’s internal organs. Most people who develop mesothelioma have worked on jobs where they inhaled asbestos particles.

Dr. William Thornton (May 20, 1759 - March 28, 1828) was an early American inventor, painter and architect who designed the United States Capitol. He also served as the first Architect of the Capitol and first Superintendent of the United States Patent Office.

Asbestos in the U.S. Capitol

On March 24, 2006, the office of Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland received a letter signed by ten members of the United States Capitol tunnel shop detailing the dangerous conditions posed by asbestos that exist in the tunnels, and providing information that indicates some, if not all, of these conditions have existed for at least 6 years.

Inside tunnels that snake their way for miles, huge slabs of concrete fall from ceilings and white powder coats some pipes and floors; much of it is asbestos — harmful fibers that can scar lungs and, potentially, cause death.

According to these workers, even the issuance in 2000 of citations from the Congressional Office of Compliance has not been sufficient to have the Architect of the Capitol make the necessary repairs and take immediate, effective steps to protect these workers.

Moreover, if it is true that U.S. Capitol Police are forbidden from patrolling the tunnels because of the hazardous conditions, then the failure to address these conditions also has created a potentially serious security loophole.

According to an article in the Washington Times on June 1, 2005, "the Capitol was built and later expanded in the 1850s using the labor of slaves who cut the logs, laid the stones and baked the bricks. The original plan was to use workers brought in from Europe; however, there was a poor response to recruitment efforts and African Americans—free and slave—comprised the majority of the work force."


The mesothelium is a membrane that covers and protects most of the internal organs of the body. It is composed of two layers of cells: One layer immediately surrounds the organ; the other forms a sac around it. The mesothelium produces a lubricating fluid that is released between these layers, allowing moving organs (such as the beating heart and the expanding and contracting lungs) to glide easily against adjacent structures.

The mesothelium has different names, depending on its location in the body. The peritoneum is the mesothelial tissue that covers most of the organs in the abdominal cavity. The pleura is the membrane that surrounds the lungs and lines the wall of the chest cavity. The pericardium covers and protects the heart. The mesothelial tissue surrounding the male internal reproductive organs is called the tunica vaginalis testis. The tunica serosa uteri covers the internal reproductive organs in women.

Mesothelioma (cancer of the mesothelium) is a disease in which cells of the mesothelium become abnormal and divide without control or order. They can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs. Cancer cells can also metastasize (spread) from their original site to other parts of the body. Most cases of mesothelioma begin in the pleura or peritoneum.

Working with asbestos is the major risk factor for mesothelioma. A history of asbestos exposure at work is reported in about 70 percent to 80 percent of all cases. However, mesothelioma has been reported in some individuals without any known exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos is the name of a group of minerals that occur naturally as masses of strong, flexible fibers that can be separated into thin threads and woven. Asbestos has been widely used in many industrial products, including cement, brake linings, roof shingles, flooring products, textiles, and insulation. If tiny asbestos particles float in the air, especially during the manufacturing process, they may be inhaled or swallowed, and can cause serious health problems. In addition to mesothelioma, exposure to asbestos increases the risk of lung cancer, asbestosis (a noncancerous, chronic lung ailment), and other cancers, such as those of the larynx and kidney.

The risk of asbestos-related disease increases with heavier exposure to asbestos and longer exposure time. However, some individuals with only brief exposures have developed mesothelioma. On the other hand, not all workers who are heavily exposed develop asbestos-related diseases.

In summary, the House of the People needs to protect the people in the house, even if they are out of sight, and in the basement.

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