Asbestos in older buildingsraises questions of



    “Be aware, but don’t be alarmed” is the message students are getting in response to recent investigations about the possibility of asbestos in their homes.

    For Deseret Towers residents, the discovery of low levels of asbestos in their dorm ceilings is raising a few eyebrows, but not the roof. Adhering to a 1995 federal regulation, on-campus housing has posted signs in each dormitory alerting students of the asbestos.

    R-Hall residents can hardly miss the bright yellow sign posted between the two elevators in the lobby reading, “Advisory: this building contains asbestos.” Residents have contributed to the warning with scribbled messages like: “Kill it before it kills you!” “Asbestos is our friend.” “Please do not disturb the asbestos.” “Hey stupid, where is it?” followed by, “The asbestos is in the mattress.”

    These messages, despite their humorous intentions, are reflective of the attitudes of DT residents regarding the asbestos.

    “Most of us didn’t think it was a really big deal,” said Andrew Nicoll, a freshman from Hartford, Conn., living in Q-Hall. Before the testing, Nicoll played Frisbee in the hallway with other students, never thinking twice about the snow-like flakes knocked off the acoustic ceiling.

    The dust created when these ceilings are disturbed contains asbestos fibers, which have been linked to diseases such as mesothelioma and other forms of lung cancer.

    Although the Frisbee games have stopped, Nicoll says he’s not too concerned with the asbestos in the ceilings. “I guess I’m just young and carefree,” he said.

    Other students are still unaware of the asbestos warning. Melissa Andros, a freshman from Sterling, Va., had not seen the posted memo, but said she would be “slightly concerned” if she knew the building contained asbestos.

    The sign is posted in the lobby — behind a plant in the head resident’s office.

    Craig Barrus, assistant construction manager at BYU is responsible for asbestos testing on campus. According to Barrus, in a recent test using samples from Deseret Tower’s Q-Hall, one of the oldest resident halls, he detected a 4-6 percent level of asbestos in the acoustic ceilings in the hallways.

    With these relatively low levels, Barrus is not too concerned that the asbestos poses a threat to students’ health.

    “We are fairly confident that the (asbestos level in) the air is not a problem.” However, he said, “like anything else, there is a risk.”

    Barrus, who is licensed by the state to do asbestos inspections, did not test the other on-campus housing. He said that BYU is in the process of doing major renovations on Helaman Halls. During this process, the first step in reconstruction is to remove asbestos and ensure that it is not used in the new buildings. Heritage Halls and Wymount Terrace have not been tested either, despite the fact that some of the buildings are up to 42 years old.

    “As long as (the asbestos) is intact, the danger is minimal,” Barrus said.

    Brent Harker, director of Public Communications, said the asbestos testing was due to recent Daily Universe inquiries. Prior to this time, no testing had been done in the dormitories and housing was not aware of the federal regulation requiring them to notify their residents of the asbestos.

    BYU was quick to adhere to the regulation, however, and Harker emphasized the importance of keeping the asbestos levels in perspective.

    “We’ve never been cited for a violation, we know exactly what OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requires. We have a very aggressive asbestos program on campus,” he said.

    Students living in on-campus housing are not the only ones at risk of possible asbestos exposure. Many students living off campus are also oblivious to the unassuming asbestos ceilings in their homes or apartments.

    Mindy Quigley lives in The Terrace apartments in Provo, under a plastered acoustic ceiling with “a couple of cracks.” Quigley, a ballet major from Plano, Texas, said she had never thought about her ceiling containing asbestos.

    Like most acoustic ceilings, Quigley’s does not usually flake unless it is touched. However, she has noticed a light sprinkling of the ceiling plaster on the floor even when the ceiling has not been disturbed.

    According to David O. Wallace, the director of asbestos training at the Rocky Mountain Center for occupational and environmental health at the University of Utah, the secret is keeping the asbestos dust moist.

    “If the asbestos falls on the floor or the furniture, dampen it and clean it up wet,” Wallace said.

    People should use a wet rag on small flakes, or spray down larger spills with a water bottle and then pick up the plaster. Another tip is to use a piece of tape, stick it to the plaster flake and fold the tape in half. Asbestos is not harmful to the skin, so as long as it is kept damp and out of the air, it is not considered a hazard, Wallace said.

    As far as residents becoming overly concerned about the threat of asbestos in their homes, Wallace advised, “Respect (the asbestos), but don’t be too extremely concerned about it. … There is no reason to be afraid of asbestos as long as the building is in good condition.”

    Ben Dattilo, an environmental scientist and asbestos inspector with the state division of air quality agrees that undisturbed asbestos is not something to panic about.

    “A person is 6,000 times more likely to get lung cancer living with a person who smokes that in a house with (undisturbed) asbestos,” he said. Datillo said the problems arise when people try to tackle asbestos problems on their own without proper instruction.

    There is no law against removing asbestos from your home, but the state does provide a handbook explaining proper removal procedures. Often, a person will do far more damage by trying to remove an asbestos floor or ceiling than they would have had by leaving the asbestos in place.

    The bottom line, according to Dattilo and other experts is, “If it’s not a problem, don’t fix it.” In other words, if the asbestos is not airborne, or “friable,” it does not pose a serious concern.

    The only permanent method of controlling asbestos is removal, which is effective if done properly, but can be expensive. Dickson estimated that asbestos removal for a house averages about $4,000-5,000, but can be as little as $1,500. However, Dickson said, this is a lot less costly than a potential $10,000 fine a landlord may face if she or he is found to be guilty of disregarding federal asbestos regulations.

    If a student or local resident is concerned about asbestos in their home, they should get it tested, said Dave Johnson, bureau director of environmental health for Utah County. Johnson said every year many homeowners contact his department about asbestos concerns.

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