Asbestos is scary, how we deal with it shouldn’t be

The contention shines light on larger issues of safety and feasibility

Asbestos is scary, how we deal with it shouldn’t be

For anyone still unaware, asbestos exposure is not good for you. For much of the twentieth century, asbestos materials were installed almost everywhere as cheap fireproofing. Now, it is now effectively banned in Canada and for good reason. 

Health Canada warns that breathing in even microscopic amounts of asbestos can cause severe long-term health problems. These include aggressive cancers and asbestosis, a disease that scars the lungs and impairs breathing. 

Often, people only experience the effects of inhaling asbestos fibres decades after the fact. 

Any potential exposure to asbestos is a big deal. This explains why in 2017, when “unusual dust” was discovered in the Medical Sciences Building, rooms were cordoned off for days. It is also why the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UFTA), along with other labour groups, are doubting the clean bill of health U of T has given to its air quality.

At the centre of this dispute is who and what determines the acceptable amount of asbestos in the air. 

The national occupational standard exposure limit for asbestos concentration in construction sites is 0.1 fibres per cubic centimetre (0.1 f/cc), which poses a very small risk on exposure. U of T’s report decided that the acceptable amount is 0.5 f/cc. However, the provincial government’s guideline, while not legally enforceable, is 0.4 f/cc. The UFTA wants U of T’s asbestos level to be closer to Queen’s Park recommendation, and preferably around a limit of 0.1 f/cc.

If those differences sound a bit trivial and pedantic, it is because they might be. Even the Vice-President of Operations and Real Estate Partnerships Scott Mabury, who is responsible for U of T buildings and their safety, admitted that it’s very hard to tell the difference between U of T’s and Queen’s Park’s limits. Mabury is also the former Chair of the Chemistry Department. 

U of T contends that it has reached its limit based on what is tangible, achievable, and legal. But the UFTA is also right to demand more. The university must do everything it can to ensure that our community is not exposed to asbestos. That not everything is being done to protect its members from exposure to asbestos is troubling.

However, what should really worry us is the UFTA’s allegations of how U of T decided upon its asbestos exposure limitation. The UFTA has made allegations of a “democratic deficit” in the process, meaning that the union was only informed of feedback sessions at the last minute and that the panel responsible for making the decision was overly close to U of T officials. The union also claims the panel did not include enough asbestos experts.

The implications of these allegations are serious and troubling. If the culture and formal process for deciding how to go about safety are being compromised and rushed in order for U of T to get what it wants, then this issue goes beyond how many fractions of particles are in the air. It affects every aspect of safety at U of T: the buildings, the people inside them, and whether the administration will do everything possible to ensure the safety of our community.

Ideally, there would be no asbestos fibres in the air at all, but past architects and engineers made choices that decided otherwise. All that can be done now is to minimize fibres to the point that the risk becomes negligible. 

Instating a limit lower than where U of T has placed so far may prove very tricky. But when it comes to breathing in potentially lethal industrial fibres, having the university only reach a legally-sound common denominator is hardly reassuring. It is definitely not the standard by which U of T came to be recognized as one of the best employers and schools in the country. This does not leave us breathing easy.

Martin Concagh is a second-year Political Science student at New College.

Labour groups rebuke U of T’s “inaction” on asbestos

Comments come as U of T report finds university meeting provincial standards

Labour groups rebuke U of T’s “inaction” on asbestos

In response to an independent U of T report that found that the university’s asbestos management practices meet legislated provincial requirements, and are even “more restrictive in some places,” labour organizations are criticizing the university over its perceived “inaction and inadequate response.”

The report and the university administration’s response were made public on March 26, two years after asbestos-containing dust forced the closure of sections of the Medical Sciences Building.

The report is a product of an independent panel whose membership was finalized by U of T in January 2018. Submitted to the school in February, the report includes data from over 4,000 air samples taken from university buildings.

The samples found that 95 per cent of indoor air samples from the Medical Sciences Building are indistinguishable from outside air and have asbestos levels below existing standards.

However, the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA), which represents U of T faculty, librarians, and research associates, has strongly criticized the university’s asbestos management and the report’s limited scope.

On April 18, the UTFA, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3902, and the United Steelworkers (USW) 1998 held a press conference to voice concerns about the report and the university’s handling of asbestos.

CUPE 3902 represents contract academic workers at U of T, including teaching assistants and exam invigilators. USW 1998 represents U of T’s clerical and professional employees.

Setting standards

Asbestos is a silicate mineral that was commonly used in construction for insulation and fireproofing before 1990. It was later banned, with some exemptions, in Canada in 2018.

When asbestos fibres are released into the air, such as during maintenance or construction, they pose a serious health risk if inhaled.

Across Canada, the occupational exposure limit (OEL) — which is the standard acceptable exposure for construction workers — is 0.1 fibres per cubic centimetre (f/cc) for asbestos.

The generally accepted exposure standard for the general public is half of the OEL — U of T has set its campuses’ action limit to this 0.05 f/cc standard.

The report was unable to find a legally enforceable maximum or best practice standard for public exposure to asbestos, meaning that its findings are tied to existing best practices.

Vice-President Operations and Real Estate Partnerships Scott Mabury stood by the university’s use of a 0.05 f/cc action limit, adding that if it finds a standard that is “grounded in something that everybody can agree on… or is based on some physical reality, then [the university] will consider adopting that level.”

Although not legally enforceable, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change has set a desirable concentration of 0.04 f/cc.

Mabury, formerly the Chair of the Department of Chemistry, said that as an analytical chemist, it is “very difficult to tell the difference” between 0.04 and 0.05 f/cc.

U of T’s standards have been a point of contention. The report recommended that the university ensures that asbestos exposure is “as low as reasonably achievable,” with 0.02–0.04 f/cc as suggested reasonable guidelines. It added that 0.01 f/cc should be an aspirational limit.

Mabury, however, said that the university has yet to find a basis upon which to lower acceptable asbestos exposure levels.

Terezia Zoric, the Chair of the UTFA’s Grievance Committee, wrote to The Varsity that U of T must act on the report’s recommendations.

“Despite the Administration’s own Panel’s finding that it would be best practice for the Administration to adopt a more demanding standard for testing air quality, the Administration has shown a complete lack of willingness to do so,” she wrote.

“We are deeply disappointed that the Administration plans to use a less demanding standard and are concerned for the health and safety of UTFA members, students and staff.”

In response to UTFA’s critiques, Mabury told The Varsity, “We believe we will endeavour to always do the best we can. We are holding ourselves to a standard that is connected to a legal requirement because it’s something we can point to that is real and substantive.”

He added that the safety of the U of T community is the administration’s highest priority.

Administration and consultation

Another chief concern that the labour organizations have voiced is what they perceive as the panel’s lack of meaningful consultation with the U of T community.

The three-person expert panel was chaired by epidemiologist and l’Université de Montréal professor Jack Siemiatycki as well as Roland Hosein and Andrea Sass‐Kortsak, both associated with the Division of Occupational and Environmental Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Jess Taylor, the Chair of CUPE 3902, said that the panel failed to listen to criticism and that outreach was “abysmal” and inaccessible, adding that unions were only provided a 10-day notice for the feedback sessions.

“There was a democratic deficiency of representation regarding the review panel process and implementation,” Taylor said. In response, Mabury told The Varsity that the panel “went well beyond what [U of T] asked them to do.”

He also said that the panel’s timing of the consultations was based on its members’ limited availabilities due to their “high demand on a global basis to provide [their] expertise.”

The UTFA has also expressed concern that the panel was not at arm’s-length from the U of T administration, “whose conduct should have been under scrutiny.”

Mabury, however, stressed that the panel was not influenced by the U of T administration.

“These were independent scientists. They are academics… These folks were chosen for their expert opinion. That’s what we asked for. That’s what we got,” he told The Varsity.

Among the recommendations of the panel was a re-evaluation of the university’s Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) Department’s organizational structure.

Under the current structure, Mabury is responsible for the removal of asbestos during capital projects, Vice-President Research and Innovation Vivek Goel is responsible for broad environmental health and safety, while Vice-President Human Resources & Equity Kelly Hannah-Moffat is responsible for worker health.

“We believe that separation of oversight duties has an internal value in having internal checks and balances that wouldn’t be there if we coalesced everything into one portfolio,” Mabury said.

While asbestos management practices will not change, the university will more explicitly articulate each Vice-President’s roles and responsibilities in its asbestos management practices.

Evaluating experts’ expertise

Beyond the lack of community input, Zoric told The Varsity that the UTFA believes that the panel should have included more experts, and ones with different areas of expertise, as its three members did not have “practical experience in asbestos abatement and management, and did not include representatives from employee groups working in affected buildings.”

Mabury said that the three members were chosen because most peer reviews involve two to three experts. He added that they were “the best from amongst those nominated” from an open nomination period, citing Siemiatycki’s four decades of experience as a researcher.

The UTFA retained the services of Environmental Consulting Occupational Health (ECOH), an environmental consultant, soon after the 2017 incidents. According to Zoric, ECOH advised that the university’s current standards are not appropriate and do not meet the best practice standard that the report calls for.

CUPE 3902 advises members to not go into Medical Sciences Building

Union alleges “major violations of legislation”

CUPE 3902 advises members to not go into Medical Sciences Building

CUPE 3902, the union representing sessional lecturers and teaching assistants at U of T, is advising its members to avoid going into the Medical Sciences Building in wake of asbestos-containing dust having been found.

Last week, the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine sent an email to students, informing them that a lab on the sixth floor was closed after asbestos-containing dust appeared during construction for the Lab Innovation for Toronto renovations.

According to an email CUPE 3902 sent to its members, the university did not previously know that there was also asbestos in the paint on the walls, or which walls and how many walls are covered with asbestos-containing paint.

It also claims to have received concerns that the air tests “may not have fully compliant with OHSA and other statutory health and safety obligations, and the Union is still investigating these concerns.”

The union alleges that there were “major violations of legislation.” This includes, the union claims, hiring an “incompetent contractor to handle asbestos, failing to notify employees, and failing to work with the Joint Health and Safety Committees.

“The Union will pursue these violations,” the email reads. “If you are not receiving messages from the Employer about this situation, please let us know.”

In addition, CUPE 3902 disputes U of T’s claim that the dust poses no health risk. “That is not the information the Union has received from our own Health and Safety representatives from the CUPE national office. The information we have received is that the dust can easily become attached to skin, hair and clothing, and that pressure as light as a fingernail’s pressure can release the asbestos fibers from the dust,” the email continues.

The union says that it will “fully support” members who choose not to go to work at the Medical Sciences builing and is urging anyone who has been in the building since November to fill out a Worker’s Exposure Incident Form.

CUPE 3902 is holding an information session on March 27 at UC 244.

The Varsity
has reached out to U of T for comment. This story is developing, more to follow.