Asbestos affects repairs in Margaret Morrison stairwells

Courtney Wittekind Mar 21, 2010

Students entering Margaret Morrison Carnegie Hall may have been surprised to see a large black sheet of plastic covering half of the main stairway, coupled with a sign declaring the presence of asbestos.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fiber that can be woven and is resistant to heat and most chemicals. For these reasons, in the mid-20th century, asbestos was considered ideal for use in construction-related applications, including roofing shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, paper and cement products, textiles, and coatings. However, the inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause serious illnesses, including lung cancer and asbestosis, a type of lung ailment. Since Jan. 1, 2005, the European Union has banned all use of asbestos as well as banning all extraction, manufacture, and processing of asbestos products.

According to Carnegie Mellon Environmental Health and Safety (EHS), all of the hard plaster in Margaret Morrison is considered to be contaminated with asbestos. For this reason, any repair or renovation that would disrupt the building’s hard plaster has to be completed by a contractor licensed by the Allegheny County Health Department.

The current work being undertaken in Margaret Morrison is a result of water damage that occurred earlier this year. “[Facilities Management Services] knew of the presence of asbestos in the building and incorporated the need for asbestos abatement work from the very beginning of its planning of [the water damage repair] project,” said Mark R. Banister, assistant director of EHS. “The abatement work is being performed under a permit from [the] Allegheny County Health Department, who oversees all asbestos abatement work in the county. Our contractor is licensed by them.”

Many students reacted negatively to hearing of the asbestos problem. “I was really surprised to see that there was asbestos in the building.” said Sarah Ceurvorst, a first-year art major. “I only have class there twice a week, but I still don’t want to be breathing that in, even for a short time. I feel bad for the staff and students who spend most of their time inside the building.”

However, Banister also stresses that asbestos, when properly handled, does not pose any health risk. This is especially true in Margaret Morrison, where asbestos is only present in the back side of the plaster and is not exposed unless the material is damaged. According to Banister, health risks are also low during the current repairs due to the steps taken by the health department. “County personnel inspect the completed work before the barriers are removed and also review the air test results to ensure safe re-occupancy of the area,” Banister said. “The barriers that one sees from the outside are designed to prevent any asbestos fibers from leaving the work area. Filtered vacuum units run within the work area to also ensure that no contamination leaves the area.”

Students enrolled in classes taking place in Margaret Morrison have not had to change their routes significantly thanks to a second stairway only a few feet away. However, many students have voiced complaints concerning the quality of the repair efforts. “I was surprised to see that the areas of the walls that had been repaired didn’t look nice at all. The color doesn’t match the rest of the walls, and in some places the drywall hasn’t been replaced,” said Sarah Read, a first-year design major.

In addition to Margaret Morrison, two other Carnegie Mellon buildings contain materials contaminated with asbestos. In the boiler room of Morewood Gardens, the ceiling contains asbestos, and on the fourth floor of Hunt Library, there is asbestos fireproofing above the suspended ceiling in the center above and around the rare book room. No one is permitted to lift the ceiling tiles in this area.

While the presence of asbestos may make some students nervous, EHS and FMS are dedicated to keeping Carnegie Mellon’s campus and buildings safe for students and faculty. According to Banister, the departments’ detection measures, as well as their commitment to repairing any risky areas, will keep campus free of asbestos-related health risks.

“We maintain an inventory of all asbestos locations on campus and monitor them routinely for damage or deterioration. Whenever such conditions occur, we take prompt action to repair or remove the material in question.”