Vasko Jontschev, Ex-Employee at Planetarium, Says His Asbestos Complaints Were Ignored

Miami's Museum of Science was shut down today after the museum reported discovering asbestos in the popular Space Transit Planetarium.

But museum staff had been told about the possibility of asbestos weeks before, first from an ex-employee and later from a New Times reporter last Friday.

The ex-employee, Vasko Jontschev, says  his complaints were ignored, despite the fact that he suffers from bronchitis which could be linked to the asbestos.

Jontschev says he sent photos (such as the above) of what he thought was asbestos to the museum and told a former co-worker of his concerns as early as last month.

The 64-year-old Bulgarian immigrant first grew suspicious of the hallway when he returned to the museum for the first time since retiring in 2008 after suffering a heart attack. He worked at the planetarium for 32 years, first at its snack bar and latter as a laser show producer.

Suffering from bronchitis and thyroid problems, Jontschev asked to see his personnel file, including his medical history, but was rebuffed.

"I was treated horribly," he says. "I was escorted like a criminal from the office and told to never come back." When he finally got a hold of his file, he says, it was empty. "It was like something from the KGB: Everything I did over there was missing. I wasn't allowed to take the file out of the office. I wasn't allowed to photocopy anything."

With his health worsening by the day, Jontschev returned to the planetarium last month and secretly took samples of a fluffy gray dust lining the walls of the electrical room where he had spent much of his time. He paid a private lab to analyze the sample. The results: 15 percent deadly amosite asbestos.

"That's the main air-conditioning unit for the planetarium," he says. "It would fall on our shoulders, on our heads. Whenever we breathed, we breathed it in." Even worse, amosite asbestos is particularly dangerous when wet. "That place leaked almost every other week," Jontschev remembers. "I would have to mop it up without a mask."

Jontschev provided New Times with a photo of the moldering electrical corridor and samples of the deadly asbestos (in a sealed bag). But when we visited earlier this week, planetarium C.O.O. Frank Steslow called the insulation "harmless" and tried to hand us a crumbled pile of it.

"It doesn't even concern us that much because it's not our building," he said. "It's the county's." He couldn't remember the last time the county did an inspection.

This afternoon, the Miami Herald reported that the museum had shut down after confirming the existence of asbestos.

Jontschev has seen three doctors in the past three months for his bronchitis. Bruce Marchette, whose lab -- Advanced Industrial Hygiene Services, Inc. -- analyzed the asbestos samples, says bronchitis can be a symptom of asbestosis or lung cancer -- both potentially caused by asbestos exposure.

Jontschev's worst fear, however, is that others will get sick from the planetarium's asbestos. "It's a danger to the general public," he says. "The last day I went, there were three classes of kindergartners. If Dade County didn't inspect the building or knew and never did anything about it, that's criminal."

When told that Steslow had crumbled the asbestos in his hands in front of a New Times reporter, Patrick Wong, chief of the county's Air Quality Management Division, replied: "He did what?"

"That's not a recommended action," Wong said. "Just the act of taking a piece off without proper procedures could release fibers. As possible carcinogen that could be dangerous."

Wong said on Tuesday that he would send an investigator to the museum but had not received any prior complaints about the building. Although county and federal law only requires asbestos to be removed during demolition or renovations, Wong said the crumbly substance would be taken out if found to be asbestos -- a finding confirmed by the museum today.

"If it's in bad condition it ought to be removed," he said. "It should be removed because it's dangerous."

No word on how long the museum will be closed. It was scheduled to host an event next week for Art Basel.
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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.