Asbestos on Campus

By Julie Selby & Melinda Stephan

Renovations at Kent State warrant attention to the cancer-causing mineral that may be hidden in some of these buildings: asbestos.

A typical asbestos warning sign. Though asbestos is present in many public and private buildings, signs like these are usually displayed in renovation zones where asbestos may not be contained and protective precautions are needed.
A typical asbestos warning sign. Though asbestos is present in many public and private buildings, signs like these are usually displayed in renovation zones where asbestos may not be contained and protective precautions are needed.

Changes are everywhere on Kent’s campus this semester: out with the old and in with the new.  There are many older buildings being given a face lift or, in the case of Van Deusen and the Art Annex, a complete remodel.  According to KSU’s Description of Current Projects, some are being demolished, renovated or retrofitted with newer heating, air conditioning and ventilation (HVAC) systems to meet energy goals.    What students casually walking by some of these old buildings may not realize is that many contain asbestos.

A rendering of what KSU's new art facility will look like once Van Deusen and the Art Annex are renovated.
A rendering of what KSU’s new art facility will look like once Van Deusen and the Art Annex are renovated.

Asbestos was a very popular material in construction and manufacturing until the 1970s, and much of Kent’s campus was built long before that.  Van Deusen (and the Art Annex) is being renovated to become the new Center for Visual Arts, and is scheduled to open later this year.  In some cases, in order to make necessary repairs and renovations, areas with older building materials, like asbestos, must be disturbed.

The risk

Though asbestos is synonymous with dangerous diseases and lawsuits, it is not dangerous unless it’s airborne.  When it is, the Mesothelioma Research Foundation of America (MESORFA) advises it can be responsible for four diseases: “1. Asbestosis, a serious, chronic, non malignant fibrous hardening and scarring of the lungs; 2. pleural plaque and thickening, scarring of the lining of the lung; 3. lung cancer; and 4. Mesothelioma, a cancer of the thin membranes lining the thoracic and abdominal cavities and surrounding internal organs.”

Asbestos fibers present in a human lung.
Asbestos fibers present in a human lung.

MESORFA notes that construction and industrial workers are the most likely to develop health conditions from working near or with asbestos containing materials (ACMs), but that due to the latent nature of the disease, affected people may not see symptoms until 15-40 years after their first exposure.

Asbestos is not only found in older public buildings, but also older private residences.  This means it’s not just the average blue collar worker who may be in an area containing asbestos, but Kent residents and Kent State students as well.  Are they really at risk?

Occupational Health and Safety Coordinator Don Head believes students and faculty are safer than they might think: “We have a fairly comprehensive list of where asbestos exists.  It is usually in crawl spaces, behind walls or in mechanical rooms, so the occupants of the buildings have very little risk of exposure.”

Why is asbestos so common?

An attic lined with asbestos insulation. Because of asbestos' flame-resistant and insular properties, it's especially common in public and private structures built before the 1970s.
An attic lined with asbestos insulation. Because of asbestos’ flame-resistant and insular properties, it’s especially common in public and private structures built before the 1970s.

Popular as a cheap and durable insulating and fireproofing agent, asbestos was used extensively in construction and manufacturing until the 1970s.  Many campus structures were built during this time, which means many of them contain asbestos.

ACMs are used in many materials that are not in common areas of residences: roof shingles, covering electrical wiring, gutters, drainpipes, and insulation in attics, walls, furnace and boiler equipment.

Many people don't realize how prevalent asbestos is not only in public buildings, but private homes as well.
Many people don’t realize how prevalent asbestos is not only in public buildings, but private homes as well.

 

What many aren’t aware of are how many ACMs are hiding in plain sight.  Asbestos can also be found in a number of objects people encounter every day, such as walls and ceilings, acoustic tiles, linoleum and flooring adhesive, outlets and switches, and window putty and coatings.

Depending on what kinds of materials asbestos is used for, it can be friable or non-friable.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), non-friable asbestos “is any material containing more than one percent asbestos (as determined by Polarized Light Microscopy) that, when dry, cannot be crumbled, pulverized, or reduced to powder by hand pressure.”  Products like vinyl floor tiles and cement sheets are non-friable ACMs, though cement sheets can become friable as a result of wear or damage.  Soundproofing material, boiler insulation and fire-retardant material on steel work are friable ACMs because these products are looser and can be pulverized under very light pressure when dry.

What IS asbestos?

The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry characterizes asbestos broadly and emphasizes it’s structure (“fibrous forms” of certain minerals), but there are many kinds.

Asbestos’ structures makes it such a popular material: long, fibrous strands can be woven and used in many materials we encounter every day, even outside the home.  According to the University of Pennsylvania Health System, the chrysotile variety is by far the most commonly used form of asbestos, making up 90-95% of asbestos containing materials (ACMs) in U.S. buildings.

Serpentine asbestos, which contains the mineral chrysotile. This variety of asbestos "possesses relatively long and flexible crystalline fibers that are capable of being woven," according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Serpentine asbestos, which contains the mineral chrysotile. This variety of asbestos “possesses relatively long and flexible crystalline fibers that are capable of being woven,” according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The abatement process

The Office of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) at Kent State is responsible for keeping track of maintenance or renovation that might disturb ACMs in campus buildings. Though not required to notify students in the event of possible ACM disturbance, EHS is required to notify the EPA and the Ohio Department of Health (ODH).

EHS director Dennis Baden also happens to be certified as both an asbestos hazard project designer, and as an asbestos hazard evaluation specialist, which Baden said “allows [him] to do the inspection and determine any potential hazards with asbestos.”

Neither the EPA nor the ODH is required to inspect these buildings after being notified, unless the amount of regulated asbestos containing material (RACM) exceeds a certain amount.  According to its website, ODH is not required to inspect structures in which the RACM is below 50 linear or square feet.  Similarly, the EPA is not required to inspect structures unless the RACM “disturbed exceeds 260 linear feet on pipes, 160 feet on other facility components (building debris) or 35 cubic feet off [sic] facility components.”

Once the ACM is reported, an abatement company gets to work.  “If, in the course of their work, a repair or maintenance worker needs to work in the areas known to have asbestos, we use a contracted asbestos abatement company to remove and clean the area,” Head said.

Head is referring to a company like Rick Kuhlman’s, HEPA Environmental Services, Inc. in Rootstown.

Rick Kuhlman, president of HEPA Environmental Services, Inc.
Rick Kuhlman, president of HEPA Environmental Services, Inc.

HEPA removes asbestos, lead and hazardous waste from commercial, industrial and residential structures in three states.  Companies like HEPA bid on abatement jobs, and if the customer accepts a company’s bid, certified employees prepare a work area to contain the ACM.  Kuhlman said his employees use equipment like negative air machines, filters, soapy water, decontamination chambers and a lot of plastics to keep the ACM controlled.  Once the ACM is removed, it is taken to a C&D landfill, which is a containment and demolition landfill specifically licensed to take this kind of material.  Kuhlman said the landfill HEPA uses buries asbestos, and he is amazed at the technology C&D landfills use: “There’s a three-dimensional map of the landfill inside […] to tell you where the asbestos is.  You literally could dig a hole and go find it again.”

Accidents DO happen

To protect students and faculty from asbestos exposure, KSU has put the Abestos Management Program in place.  Even with safeguards in place, accidents can happen anywhere – even in the Capitol.  In fact, ACMs have been found recently in items assumed safe for even for children, like crayons.

Chrysotile asbestos, the most common form of asbestos used in construction and manufacturing.
Chrysotile asbestos, the most common form of asbestos used in construction and manufacturing.

As for workers, the Occupational Health and Safety Association keeps a detailed index of all news releases pertaining to workplace accidents.  Some organizations are committed to reducing the number of on-the-job accidents and afflictions involving asbestos through testing and developing new, less harmful materials.

Baden said that “asbestos-containing materials still can be found in new building materials, today,” though he noted that they aren’t used as frequently as they used to be.  This means that although the risk of exposure may be decreasing with time, it is still present.

If an area with ACMs is disturbed or handled incorrectly during the abatement process, the friable material could become airborne; when inhaled, the fibrous particles could damage the heart, lungs and esophagus.

Structures should be checked for asbestos and monitored carefully if found.  Though asbestos may not be hazardous if found, not disturbing ACM is key to maintaining a safe atmosphere in public or private buildings.