Terry Bucklan has been working in Sidney Smith with the Arts and Science Student Union (ASSU) for sixteen and a half years. Late in the 1980s, Bucklan came to his office and found a small, mysterious machine sitting on a nearby desk. When Bucklan asked what the machine was for, he found out U of T had put it there to monitor levels of asbestos in the building.
In 1990, the lobby was enclosed in a huge white sheet with yellow tape around it saying “do not enter” because the university decided to remove asbestos that had been falling from the ceiling. Call him crazy, but when a tile fell from the ceiling on the fifth floor of Sid Smith and lay there overnight, Bucklan’s anxiety about the toxic substance came drifting back.
“It’s really kind of a frightening substance,” said Bucklan. Asbestos insulation is no longer used in Canadian buildings, but it is still produced in Quebec and then exported to other countries. “You cannot see it if it falls in front of you,” said Bucklan. “Once you inhale it, the fibres get caught in your lungs and there is no way to remove those fibres.”
It can take years before respiratory problems show up, and Bucklan says there has been not enough study to determine what levels are harmful.
“It’s easy to slough it off, because you can’t taste it, smell it, see it. It just happens,” he said.
The provincial government has a long-standing program in place to deal with the substance, but building owners have responsibility for managing the problem at their own site, with little government involvement.
“It puts the responsibility on the owner to manage their asbestos,” said Rob Ashley, a senior policy advisor for the Ministry of Labour.
Bucklan says no one notified the workers in Sid Smith of asbestos in the ceilings and tiles until ASSU started poking around for answers. “No one ever told us that there was asbestos up there, or that it was dangerous to be up there.”
While the stink caused by ASSU in 1990 prompted a partial cleanup, Bucklan says he’s worried the lesson hasn’t been learnt.
“It’s a sad thing, because the university just does not take it seriously.”
Affecting your health
Susan M. Tarlo, a respiratory physician at Toronto Western Hospital, believes the risk of dangerous health effects of asbestos is reasonably low.
“The health effects largely relate to the extent of exposure,” says Dr. Tarlo. “With significant exposure, the health effects can be very serious.” She notes risks are low for small exposure, and serious illnesses “mainly occur in people working with asbestos, where the exposure is obviously much greater than in buildings where asbestos has been used.”
High exposure can cause lung cancer and asbestosis—scarring of lung tissue. Smokers with high asbestos exposure are 40 times more likely to develop lung cancer.
Still, Tarlo says, in a poorly maintained building where asbestos is dropping from the ceiling, “it’s not likely that that exposure would cause lung cancer or fibrosis.”
But there is one exception. Mesothelioma is a malignant tumour, which is usually fatal and has been known to strike people even with very low levels of asbestos exposure, up to 20 years after the fact. It only affects one in a million people per year.
If she were working in a building containing asbestos insulation, would Dr. Tarlo be worried for her own health? “If the building had been well maintained, and the asbestos is there and it’s sealed, I wouldn’t be worried,” she said. “If I was in a building which had not been well maintained and it’s dropping down from the ceiling, then there is some exposure…. There is a small increased risk.”
However, an ASSU report printed in 1990 refers to Dr. Irving Selikoff, a noted expert on the medical hazards of asbestos, who tracked 17,800 Canadian and American asbestos workers and found that 40 per cent of their deaths were caused by asbestos exposure. The worrisome conclusion ASSU notes is that the workers’ wives and children also experienced symptoms indicating high levels of asbestos exposure. Many died of asbestos-related diseases, possibly because they merely lived in the same house as, or handled the clothes of, a person that had high levels of exposure.
The U of T procedure
“We have tons of procedures for asbestos work,” said David Gorman, director of the U of T’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety.
But all the procedure in the world couldn’t take into account human error. When a ceiling tile covered with asbestos fell on the fifth floor of Sid Smith, it took two days to clean up. The problem? “He went to the fourth floor,” says Gorman of the building manager called to the scene after the incident was reported.
Then, in the morning, a second failure occurred, Gorman says, because “the plumbers [who would clean up the area] I guess were busy on another job, and perhaps the urgency wasn’t communicated to the trade shop quickly enough.”
The normal procedure for cleaning up asbestos is to wet it down so that the fibres don’t become airborne. Since the incident in Sid Smith was due to a plumbing leak, the whole area was already sopping wet, a stroke of luck which prevented widespread exposure. Air samples on the Friday following the cleanup found no traces of airborne asbestos fibres, Gorman says. Gorman is confident that further serious asbestos leaks are unlikely. “If [the building manager] had gone to the right location, it should have been cleaned up right away, that night…. We will be talking to the trade shop people and seeing if we can’t get a faster response time on these things.”
Gorman said the university is spending approximately $30,000 in the next six months to clean up some of the most problematic buildings, like Sidney Smith, Medical Sciences, Dentistry, Edward Johnson, 215 Huron Street and the Benson building. “It doesn’t sound like they’re going to do very much cleaning. Not for that kind of money. I wish the university would take the asbestos problem seriously.”
Sid Smith Workers on Asbestos in their Building
“It’s not a good thing, but there’s not a lot that I can do about it. My biggest concern is the respiratory factors. I don’t think I should be worrying about it. There are other things I’m concerned about, and there’s no sense in worrying about it until something happens.”
-Deborah Peart, Student Affairs
“I’ve been in the building for years. We’ve been going on about the asbestos and trying to solve the problem for a while now. I mean, the environment is okay as long as you don’t mess around with the ceiling or do anything you wouldn’t normally do.”
-Peter Harris, Assistant Dean of Faculty of Science.
“It’s here and we have to live with it whether we like it or not. I mean, it’s a concern for me; I spend my time here more than I do at home. There’s not much I can do about it. It’s my job. I have to work.”
-Vicki, Administrative Assistant
“I don’t know very much about it, I just know that it causes some breathing problems. There’s really not much that I myself can do about it. I would certainly prefer if it were not here, but I really can’t lose sleep over it.”
-Louise Nugent, Graduate Administrator
“We’re told never to touch the ceilings; there are little yellow yield signs everywhere. Asbestos is a carcinogen, and I know it’s a really potent substance. I try not to think about it. If they have to do any work on the ceilings or anything they always have to have a protective barrier that shields from the ceiling to the floor and they have to wear the necessary protective suits.”
-Mary-Anne Bailey, Reception of Political Science Department
—Compiled by Glynnis Mapp