As seen in warning signs that have been posted on various buildings, Cornell has been working on a series of asbestos abatement projects on campus.
Recently, black and red signs on the exterior of Rand Hall and Balch Hall advised the entry of “authorized personnel only” and the wearing of “respiratory protection and protective clothing,” warning that asbestos can cause cancer and lung damage.
Since February, one Rand Hall sign was removed while signs on Balch Hall entry doorways remain.
Tim Fitzpatrick, director of occupational health and safety at Cornell, told The Sun in a statement on Wednesday that asbestos abatement projects “occur on an ongoing basis” at the University. He said the only current active abatement project is occurring at the Cornell Dairy facility in Hartford, New York.
Asbestos has been used in many building materials since World War II, including in ceiling tiles, pipes, walls, thermal insulation and other structures, according to the National Cancer Institute. However, asbestos is only harmful when the small fibers are airborne and can be breathed in and get stuck in the lung tissue. So even though many buildings contain it, the risk of coming into contact with it is low unless the building materials are disturbed.
It was not until the 1980s that health professionals identified its carcinogenic and lethal effects on the respiratory system. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, passed in 1986, requires all schools and public facilities to routinely test asbestos levels and provide procedural guidelines for asbestos handling and removal.
When interviewed by The Sun in late February, some students expressed concern about the projects that are currently ongoing to tackle asbestos removal on campus.
Catherine Wei ’20, a resident advisor in Balch Hall, told The Sun that she was concerned when she was not alerted when in January, her unit vending machine room was undergoing asbestos removal.
“As an RA, a main part of my job is making sure that residents feel comfortable and safe living in their dorms,” Wei said. “I think there should be a better policy or notification system for RAs to be informed about asbestos removal so that they are able to address any concerns from residents or parents.”
Savanna Lim ’21, Student Assembly freshman representative and resident of Balch Hall, shared her unease too.
“It doesn’t surprise me that we have a problem like this, since Balch was constructed almost 100 years ago, but I am surprised that I wasn’t informed of this in an email,” Lim said. “I am concerned for the health and safety of our residents.”
Asbestos has been incorporated into construction materials on campus since workers broke ground on the first University buildings in the late 1800s.
However, according to Frank Parish, Rand Hall Unit Facility Director, there is no reason for concern.
“Cornell takes this very seriously.” Parish said. “Before a project begins, we do a thorough study of the materials that we will be touching and we have to test them to see if any of them are asbestos-containing. If they are, we actually hire companies to abate the asbestos and lead paint.”
Parish said that Sunstream, the contracted company in charge of asbestos removal in Rand Hall, follows a very careful procedure.
“They come in and they encapsulate the room, know all the laws and testing procedures around getting rid of it,” Parish said. “And they issue a report and everything.”
The company even monitors the surrounding areas during removal so that in the case some particles slip out, they can detect and address the problem.
Cornell has its own Asbestos Management Program that includes an annual abatement plan and steps to address incidental disturbance of asbestos-containing materials, according to Cornell’s Environmental Health and Safety website.
Regarding notification of building users or residents, Fitzpatrick told The Sun that signs can be used for “larger jobs.”
“The NYS Department of Labor is notified prior to conducting asbestos abatement,” he wrote in a statement. “Larger jobs require notifying building occupants. Notification to building occupants is done by placing signage on building entrances.”
Wei said she would prefer a different medium of notification.
“I think there should be a better policy or notification system for RAs to be informed about asbestos removal,” Wei said. “That way, they are able to address any concerns from residents or parents.”
According to The Sun archive, Cornell has been actively addressing asbestos-producing disturbances for a long time. An article from Dec. 4, 1980 details asbestos removal efforts in the A. D. White Library in Uris Library and on the sixth floor of Mary Donlon Hall.
Parish said asbestos abatement projects can take a long time because the goal is to remove all asbestos from building materials.
“So basically asbestos is everywhere,” Parish said. “In the tiles you’re walking on, the walls … This takes forever because most of the buildings are old.”