State inspectors began an asbestos investigation at Nassau Coliseum Friday, prompted by complaints from workers, a state department of Labor spokesman said.
About a dozen workers told NBC New York that several areas of the more than 4-year-old arena are covered with what they believe is dangerous asbestos. Photos provided by their lawyer showed a white substance on the floor and walls of the coliseum's boiler room.
The asbestos probe began as thousands of parents and their children visited the arena for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.
"It's really shocking and upsetting," said Stephanie Coons, a pregnant mother of two children. "I am sorry to hear that."
The workers expressed concerns for their health and safety. Two of their longtime colleagues, they said, have contracted mesothelioma and cancer and the workers suspect the building played a role.
"We've raised questions about it for years and were always told it was nothing," said one worker.
"Sometimes we have to drill into it and the fibers fly everywhere," said another. "When blowers are used to clean up, the asbestos is sent into the air."
According to the website for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "when asbestos-containing materials are damaged or disturbed by repair, remodeling or demolition activities, microscopic fibers become airborne and can be inhaled into the lungs, where they can cause significant health problems."
None of the workers wanted their identities revealed, saying they feared for their jobs.
Earlier this year, however, one worker collected samples of the white material and brought it to three labs for testing.
According to that worker's lawyer, the testing confirmed dangerous levels of potentially airborne asbestos in work areas like the coliseum's boiler room and loading dock as well as stairwells and other places accessible to the public.
"I don't think it's a safe place for my workers," said Garden City attorney Joseph Dell, who represents electricians, plumbers, stagehands, carpenters and other coliseum workers now preparing to sue the coliseum's owner, Nassau County.
"I don't know if the public is at risk," said Dell. "My concern is for those working in it every day. They make their livings in that building and they don't want it shut down. They just want answers."
Federal inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened their own investigation at the coliseum this week.
"OSHA opened an inspection at the coliseum Tuesday in response to a worker complaint," said spokesman Edmund Fitzgerald in a statement. "The purpose will be to determine if there are any violations of workplace health and safety standards."
In a statement, Nassau County did not address the asbestos questions.
"The administration has long stated the need for a new sports entertainment arena, as the Nassau coliseum is the oldest un-renovated sports facility in the nation," said Brian Nevin, a spokesman for County Executive Edward Mangano.
The coliseum's primary tenant, the NY Islanders, called for a complete review of the asbestos claims.
"The Islanders expect that the building owner, Nassau county and the building facility manager, SMG, will review the allegations and take any and all appropriate action. The safety of our fans, players and employees is paramount," said the Islanders senior vice-president, Michael Picker.
Calls to coliseum manager, SMG, were not returned.