Two-thirds of federal buildings surveyed by the Government Accountability Office missed their routine five-year inspections for asbestos, as required by the General Services Administration. And of those, 52% haven’t been checked in more than a decade according to a watchdog report.

GSA is being pressured by Congress to offload federal buildings its no longer using as a result of hybrid work, changing government prioroties and an aging real estate portfolio. But the country’s largest landlord will have a hard time selling off property or bringing in new tenants if it doesn’t know the extent of contamination issues, the March 4 report said.

“... In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, federal agencies, including GSA, expect to decrease the amount of leased and owned space across the federal portfolio because of personnel who will continue to telework,” said GAO investigators in the report. “This may result in a greater need to dispose of unneeded federal real estate, making it even more important to find ways to efficiently dispose of federal real property.”

GSA cannot confidently say whether asbestos in federal offices is a problem, the said. And, to be sure, it may not be.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fiber that was widely used in construction for its flame-retardant properties. Legislation in the late 1980s to limited its use, and it’s health risks are now well-known thanks to television commercials about mesothelioma. But asbestos maintained in good condition and undisturbed poses little health risk, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and numerous academic reports. It’s when ceiling tiles, cabinet tops or shingles made with asbestos become damaged and “friable” that harmful fibers are released into the air and at risk of inhalation or ingestion.

It’s not clear how many federal buildings definitely used asbestos, but between 1960 and 1976 alone, GSA managed more than 700 building projects across the country. That included office buildings, courthouses, post offices and border inspection stations, many built in modern styles.

Today, the federal real estate portfolio is expansive and nearing retirement. There are more than 8,000 properties in GSA’s care, with the average building reaching 50 years of age.

While GAO didn’t quantify the risk of asbestos to federal workers, many of which are being told to return to offices post-pandemic, it did point to examples where buyers of government buildings said the presence of asbestos and other risks lowered the value of the property. And certainly, not having updated inspections leaves an open question as to whether asbestos hazards are immediately noticed, the report said.

Furthermore, GSA could find itself legally responsible for the cleanup of contaminants before it sells or disposes of them, risking adding to the turnover timeline or unearthing unplanned costs in its disposal process.

In fiscal 2023, GSA estimated $1.6 billion of its total $2 billion of unfunded environmental liabilities were asbestos related.

In its response, GSA blamed limited funding, staffing shortages, and incomplete records and database limitations for its spotty records.

Officials said there is no dedicated funding for these inspections, meaning they compete for priority with pressing construction projects or electric vehicle initiatives, in one instance.

Some regions may only have one staff member, called an “industrial hygienist,” who is responsible for overseeing asbestos inspections. In other cases, technical difficulties as simple as incompatible file sizes prevented uploading of inspection documents to databases.

GSA said they are requesting half a million dollars in fiscal 2024 to help aid these efforts. It’s also contemplating reducing re-inspection frequency from every five years to 10 years and excluding low-risk buildings, like warehouses and parking garages, from inspection.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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