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Asbestos: From ‘Magic Mineral’ to Deadly Dust

Asbestos, once known as a ‘magic mineral’ for its fire resistance but now associated with many lung diseases and cancer, remains in college buildings nationwide, including Wheaton’s. It is the high cost of removal that is part of the problem. Wheaton College will need $1 million dollars or more in order to remove the asbestos, the director of risk management, Dan Clark, told The Record.
In Oct. 1987, an article was written in The Record by the student William North expressing his concerns and educating the campus about the dangers of asbestos. Asbestos has been used in construction materials such as walls, ceiling, roof or floors — or all of the above in buildings built mainly before the 1980s. The Environmental Protection Agency first banned asbestos for fireproofing in 1973. Asbestos use is still permitted in roofing, brakes and pipeline wrap. Asbestos becomes hazardous when the fibers are disturbed, released into the air and inhaled. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims that over 132,000 primary and secondary schools in the nation have asbestos-containing materials used in their buildings. The Mesothelioma Center says that “more than 55 million children” and “the worksites for more than 7 million teachers administrators and support staff” are now affected.
Asbestos removal can be controversial if done improperly. Some experts question whether asbestos should always be removed since the hazard occurs when asbestos becomes “friable” or easily crumbled. For example, a so-called popcorn ceiling with asbestos is friable, but asbestos floor tile is not.
Wheaton College has always been very cautious about exposure to any asbestos hazard. The school has been following the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA). This act declares that schools must “inspect their school buildings for asbestos-containing building material, prepare asbestos management plans and perform asbestos response actions to prevent or reduce asbestos hazards.” All schools, including religious institutions such as Wheaton College, are subject to the rule. In addition to what the act says, Wheaton College has the responsibility to educate students to recognize asbestos-containing materials in order to protect themselves.
Clark, who has been working at Wheaton College for over 30 years, told The Record, “The College has done a good job trying to do best practices with asbestos in the past. We probably have done better than most institutions, I think.” He explained that his team is appropriately equipped and trained in case of exposure to asbestos. Clark said, “We have recording manometers, respirators, materials to sample the air that no one else on campus has.” Clark has a license from the Illinois Department of Public Health that allows him to sample a very small amount of the suspected material in order to take it to a laboratory for testing.
“Our team will be able to respond if a tile falls down,” Clark said. The team has sampled most buildings on campus and knows where the asbestos is exactly located. A specially licensed contractor is necessary for asbestos removal.
Clark’s team is required to remain on an annual medical surveillance and respiratory testing when the workers are known to have been exposed to asbestos. But “the workers rarely do the work if asbestos is involved,” Clark said. Additionally, every year the team brings someone to campus to conduct a two-hour general training with people who will have the occasion to be in contact with asbestos.
Wheaton College is subject to some renovations on East campus — on some floor, tile, some carpeting — but a schedule has not yet been set. The school will have to contact two different contractors in order to correctly take care of the asbestos present there. Clark went through some asbestos records and said that the school has detailed records of presence of asbestos on campus: “I have 9.28 gigabits of documents on asbestos in the school.” Armerding seems to be the last building on campus that has structural steel that is known to have asbestos.
Clark said, “We have known about the presence of asbestos for decades.” The center core of the Armerding would be the most affected by asbestos and unfortunately almost all floors have been found to have some sort of asbestos present. Clark confirmed that it is safe for students to have classes there since asbestos in Armeding has been contained. If the College decides to renovate Armerding, the air filters which will be used are known to be 99.97 efficient for fibers 0.3 microns or larger, Clark said. Wheaton College realizes that safety is the number one priority for everyone on campus and is also aware of the laws that require removing the asbestos before innovation or construction.

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