DHEC finds asbestos in Columbia SC apartment
What started as a plumbing problem at a Richland County apartment complex has turned into a weeks-long nightmare for two former residents who were displaced after inspectors discovered asbestos in their home .
Asbestos, a mineral once commonly used in building materials, can cause diseases such as mesothelioma and lung cancer if inhaled.
Inspectors found asbestos in two units of the Copperfield Apartments near Broad River Road, according to a Department of Health and Environmental Control report. Two months later, DHEC officials said the apartment had not yet been destroyed.
The DHEC also cited the apartment for violating two federal asbestos safety regulations. These rules require landowners to inspect for the presence of asbestos before any renovation or demolition project and to obtain an asbestos project license before performing any work related to abatement.
Ronji Richardson, regional director of Sante Realty Investments, the Arizona-based company that owns Copperfield Apartments, declined to comment.
“We have absolutely nothing”
Former residents Tony Whittemore and his girlfriend, Emily Therrien, said they had to leave most of their belongings behind when they evacuated the contaminated apartment. Between the items they need to replace and the money they spent on hotel rooms, Whittemore said he lost thousands of dollars.
“We have absolutely nothing,” he said. “Everything we worked for was ripped off so quickly. ”
When Whittemore and Therrien moved here from Vermont earlier this year, they were excited about a fresh start in a new location. But by the time they got to the Copperfield Apartments, the couple knew something was wrong.
“It was a little dirty, there was a really foul smell, I found all these different spots on the water damage ceiling,” he said. “It was as if they hadn’t touched anything, that they had just painted over the problems.”
Over the course of several months, Whittemore reported a multitude of issues to property managers, ranging from ant infestations to broken cabinets. He said the apartment was slow to respond and ultimately many of his issues were not resolved.
At the end of May, Whittemore saw her neighbor being forced to evacuate her apartment. For weeks, Whittemore said the neighbor’s toilet “was overflowing with sewage.” After calling in a plumber to fix the problem, the neighbor called DHEC and an inspector was dispatched to the apartment.
According to the inspection report, asbestos was detected in two building materials used in his apartment.
Soon after, Whittemore began to deal with his own plumbing issues. A crack in the ceiling caused water to flow into the apartment. Random puddles of water appeared in his dining room.
Once again, a plumber was called in to resolve the issue. After the plumber began renovating, Whittemore filed a complaint with DHEC. Once again, lab results showed that a building material in her apartment contained asbestos. Whittemore, Therrien and their roommate were ordered to evacuate immediately.
“We kind of got up and left,” Whittemore said, adding that he and his girlfriend only took about a week’s worth of clothes with them.
The couple ended up living in hotels for over a month before moving to a new apartment complex. They are still hoping to get what’s left at the Copperfield Apartments, but Whittemore estimates that around 40% of their belongings, including their sofa, mattresses, towels and clothes, cannot be recovered.
“We called the apartment every day,” he says. “Their response is that we can’t find a supplier who wants to come in and do the job. “
Monitoring the asbestos problem
Linda Reinstein, president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, said the Whittemore situation is not uncommon and many residential buildings across the country still contain asbestos.
“Asbestos was used extensively in structures until the 1980s, but technically it could still be used today since it was not banned,” Reinstein said. “It is a man-made disaster that causes more than 40,000 Americans to die from preventable diseases each year. “
The Copperfield Apartments were built in 1972, according to the Richland County GIS Mapping System.
Although the federal government has various safety regulations designed to prevent asbestos-related diseases, there is no formal system in place to monitor asbestos reduction. This makes it difficult to say how widespread the problem is.
In the past year, DHEC has inspected 252 structures for asbestos statewide, according to spokesperson Derrek Asberry.
“We know that asbestos exists in many of them, but this figure is not tracked because the presence of asbestos is not a public health problem,” he said.
Asbestos becomes dangerous when it breaks down and can be inhaled. When that happens, Asberry said DHEC “will demand that the building be evacuated until the remediation is complete.”
DHEC could potentially reprimand the landlord for the two cited violations at Copperfield Apartments, but agency spokeswoman Laura Renwick said she could not comment on the details of the enforcement process as the case was In progress.
DHEC said it did not intend to inspect the apartment complex further.
There are two ways to determine if you have been exposed to asbestos in your home. First, you can call the manufacturer of any product that you suspect may contain asbestos. According to the DHEC website, common sources of asbestos in the home include ceiling tiles, tub panels, pipe insulation, and loose insulation.
You can also have suspicious material tested in a laboratory. DHEC maintains a list of asbestos professionals who can perform inspections and laboratory tests on its website. You can also find one in the yellow pages under “Environmental Consultants”.
For more information, visit the DHEC website or call the department’s asbestos section at (803) 898-4289.