A startling reversal Thursday regarding the University of Montana’s asbestos-contaminated McGill Hall: “We’re anticipating occupational work, reentry into the building sometime next week,” says Certified Industrial Hygienist Scott Rogers.
It comes exactly one week after UM announced McGill, home to faculty office space, classrooms, labs and even a daycare, would be closed for the rest of spring semester after high asbestos levels were discovered last month.
Rogers’ proclamation seemed to stun the audience of about 100 people who attended Thursday’s midday update.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: So we can actually go back to work in the building?
SCOTT ROGERS: Yes, sir.
ANOTHER AUDIENCE MEMBER: With our classes?
SR: With your classes.
According to EPA standards, 5,000 asbestos fibers per square centimeter could trigger a residential cleanup. Recent test swipes from various surfaces in McGill ranged from far fewer than that to over 400,000 fibers per square centimeter – most likely taken near a deteriorating pipe joint. But Rodgers, a Bozeman contractor hired by UM, points out surface swipes and air samples are two very different things.
“When is asbestos a considered health concern or a health hazard?" Rogers says. "It’s a health hazard when it enters your lungs –when it’s in the air and respirable.”
Rodgers says his tests have determined no asbestos-related health danger in McGill.
“When you’re looking at the hazard associated with McGill Hall – from an occupational standpoint, the air samples I’ve seen, we don’t have a health hazard.”
Rodgers adds asbestos is found everywhere in the environment, especially in older buildings like McGill.
“What you’re seeing in McGill Hall is what you’re seeing in any building that has asbestos-containing materials, that is 50 years old, has a degradation of building materials over time that just occurs. If I tell you that I didn’t detect any asbestos fibers in those air samples, I’m not telling you that the concentration of asbestos fibers in the air is zero. I’m telling you that the asbestos fiber concentration in those samples in below my instrumental detection limit.”
ASUM day care center, which has since been moved to a different part of the UM campus will not reopen in McGill next week, though. Rogers says sampling and data evaluation of that space is still underway.
UM employee Lauren Kelso Hanna’s infant son does not attend the daycare, but frequently joined his mom in her McGill Hall basement office.
“He’s been on the carpet. He’s rolled around. He’s crawled. He’s pulled himself up and walked. I’ve had him in there from 4 months to 15 months. He puts everything in his mouth. What’s the risk? What have I exposed my son to?”
“Your child has been exposed to asbestos structures," says Rogers. "Statistically, based on daycares, based on buildings that I’ve dealt with, it’s a very small probability. That doesn’t comfort you at all, and I apologize for that. The exposure is minimal. The probability is still there.”
Rogers said ingestion of asbestos fibers is less risky than inhalation but advised her to alert her pediatrician about the situation. He added research indicates asbestos fibers can get washed out of the human digestive system within five years. However, fibers can also get lodged, leading to the creation of lesions.
Other campus employees expressed frustration and confusion by Thursday’s dramatic turn of events and demanded an explanation by campus officials.
UM Spokeswoman Paula Short says the university has made the best decisions that it can with the available data at hand.
“We have to be agile in our decision-making process and so I think what you're seeing is you’re seeing this evolution of our own learning and understanding about this process.”
That didn’t satisfy everyone in the audience. Some were skeptical, if not openly hostile to the university’s conclusions, methodologies and communication.
McGill Hall, meanwhile, will undergo an intensive cleaning process over the next five to seven days. Barring unforeseen problems, Paula Short says the building will reopen by next Tuesday or Thursday.