Behind closed doors: asbestos at UNBSJ

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Many students wandering the tunnel system may have taken notice of the doors marked “Danger, asbestos” under both Hazen Hall and the Ward Chipman Library. Asbestos is a known carcinogen that causes rare types of cancer such as mesothelioma and chronic diseases like asbestosis.

So what is it doing in our university? David Gillespie, manager of the environmental health, safety and security department, tells us what goes on behind closed doors.

“There are steam tunnels behind the doors,” says Gillespie. Asbestos is used most commonly as an insulator, and the pipes are covered with it. But not to fear, asbestos is bonded with other agents in order to attain a stable form; so unless that bond starts to deteriorate, it is perfectly safe. This is a good thing because it isn’t just Hazen Hall and the Ward Chipman Library buildings that contain the insulator; every building on campus has asbestos in it. The asbestos is inspected annually and air tests are done before, during and after inspection. “The key is to keep an eye on it and manage it properly,” says Gillespie.

The doors are kept closed and employees never interact with the asbestos, but even then, all employees are trained with the proper protocol. If there were ever a problem with the asbestos, the area would be sealed off and the asbestos would be removed/remediated immediately. “It is a lot more dangerous to remove asbestos than it is to manage it,” says Gillespie,” when you start disturbing it the asbestos becomes airborne and that is when people are at risk.”

The only problem is that the empty Ward Chipman Library will eventually have to be repurposed. Gillespie says, “If the plan is to simply repaint the space then, clearly the asbestos will not be an issue. But if they are planning on gutting the building, the university will have to seal off the building and have the asbestos removed.” Asbestos removal is an expensive venture, but Gillespie is not worried, “Our asbestos management system is very proactive and I am comfortable saying that there is no risk to the students of the university.”

Asbestos is a lot more common than the average person realizes. The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance (MCA) reports that “30 million pounds of asbestos are still used each year in the United States.” Gillespie says “If your house was not built in the last 20 or so years then it very likely contains asbestos.”

“Asbestos is still mined in several countries throughout the world, including Canada, and is exported to many industrialized and developing countries,” states the MCA, and these countries do not have well organized proactive management systems. It was just recently that the federal government defeated the NDP’s opposition movement to ban the export of asbestos to third world countries.

The manner in which we treat asbestos is surprisingly casual, however it seems that there is no reason for anyone to be concerned.