Projects are currently underway at Binghamton University to remove asbestos — a chemical that can cause cancer in humans who are exposed to it — from several campus buildings, including Science II and Tuscarora Office Building.
Asbestos is a group of mineral fibers commonly used in building construction up until the 1960s and ’70s for its strength and flame-retardant qualities.
According to Arthur Frank, a physician and chair of the department of environmental and occupational health at the Drexel University School of Public Health, asbestos exposure can cause both non-malignant diseases like asbestosis — scarring of the lungs and the lining of the lungs — and cancers, typically mesothelioma or lung cancer.
The University has overseen asbestos removal work this semester in the Old University Union, Lecture Hall and West Gym, among other buildings. Asbestos removal projects will begin between now and the start of the fall semester in the Heating Plant, Fine Arts Building, Central Campus Quad area, Couper Administration Building and other campus buildings.
Many campus buildings not already named contain asbestos, from the numbered Science buildings to the Engineering Building, Computer Center, and all the residential buildings of Hinman College, College-in-the-Woods and the Dickinson Community.
Asbestos is now highly regulated by New York state and federal agencies. Karen Fennie, spokeswoman for Physical Facilities, said that BU goes “above and beyond what is required regarding monitoring and testing” for asbestos.
“We’ve done removal of asbestos for years on campus without any safety issues, without any exposure issues, probably because we are so diligent about the way we go about managing this,” Fennie said.
Some see reason for concern, however.
Jenna Fierstein, president of Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) and a senior double-majoring in biology and environmental studies, said that she was bothered by the proximity of asbestos work in a Science II hallway that remained open to foot traffic and where classrooms remained in use.
“I’ve had a lot of classes in Science II this semester,” Fierstein said. “And every time I go in there, I see the construction thing with that big plastic barrier that says, ‘warning, asbestos.’ It kind of bothers me that they’re just doing construction in an area where students are heading back and forth.”
Buildings undergoing asbestos removal are not limited to abatement workers because such a step would be beyond what is required of BU under New York and U.S. laws and regulations, Fennie said.
“We do what we’re required,” Fennie said. “We do asbestos removal in a safe manner. The state set up the parameters for us to follow and we follow them.”
Fierstein expressed doubts.
“Following state laws and regulations just means that they’re doing only what’s minimally required,” she said. “And that’s not a very good defense. I mean, it’s a good legal defense if you don’t want to sued … but it doesn’t actually make it so that they’re putting students’ safety and health as their top priority.”
Kate Harrigan, a sophomore majoring in French, said she has not taken much notice of campus asbestos projects.
“I think I saw some signs in the library during my freshman year about asbestos removal,” Harrigan said. “It concerns me that I’m not more aware about it.”
The majority of Binghamton University’s Vestal campus was built in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, when asbestos use was still prevalent. Buildings constructed with asbestos in them include campus mainstays like the Lecture Hall, Glenn G. Bartle Library, Old Union and the dormitories of Dickinson Community, Hinman College and CIW.
The Binghamton University Asbestos Field Guide, a document Physical Facilities maintains for its employees, states that “as a generality, unless there is documentation otherwise, assume that asbestos may be present” in campus buildings.
The Field Guide, available on BU’s website by computers connected to the campus network, lists the most common locations of asbestos within campus buildings — ranging from ceiling tiles to window caulking, dry wall compound and fire doors — and checks off for each building the status of asbestos at these locations.
Fennie said the Field Guide may not include the location of all asbestos on campus. She called the possibility that campus buildings built in more recent decades contain asbestos “highly unlikely,” but she did not rule it out.
“Think about the complexity of constructing a building and all the materials that are used,” Fennie said. “And think about every single ingredient in a product used that you’d have to go through to say, ‘this building is 100 percent asbestos-free.’”
Robert Mulcahy, asbestos coordinator and safety manager at BU, said that BU aims to say just that, at added expense and effort, for at least one facility: the Innovative Technologies Complex (ITC) across Murray Hill Road from campus. He said guaranteeing that the ITC is free of asbestos is a necessary step for the University to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification as to the ITC’s status as a “green” facility.
Fennie said that BU tests for the presence of asbestos in any building prior to beginning renovation work, regardless of the building’s age, in order to comply with OSHA regulations. She also said that for reasons relating to funding, BU will often wait to have asbestos removed from a building until a time when the building is also set to undergo other renovations.
“It’s kind of done on a project-by-project basis,” Fennie said. “[Funding for asbestos abatement] all comes from the State. In the case of a capital project like the East Gym renovation, the cost of asbestos removal was rolled into that and paid for with our capital project funds … But it’s not like the State says, ‘we’re gonna give you an infinite amount of money to remove all the remaining asbestos on campus.’ I don’t think the State has that kind of money.”
Mulcahy said that costs of asbestos abatement projects on campus vary widely depending on projects’ sizes.
“If we just have one of our construction crews doing a job, it could be $2,500, all the way up through $1 million, depending on the scope of the project,” Mulcahy said. “With the East Gym, I know it ended up being more than $1 million.”
Within the last four years, asbestos removal has also occurred in College-in-the-Woods as well as in the Engineering Building, East Gym, Decker Student Health Services Center and other areas of campus.
The Decker Student Health Services Center is the only one of these buildings that is now completely free of asbestos, according to the Field Guide.
Asbestos removal projects are currently underway on the third floor of Science II and in the Tuscarora Office Building. Two Brothers Contracting, Inc. of Whitesboro, N.Y. is performing the abatement in both buildings. Two Brothers Contracting’s workers are removing some 3,940 square feet and 500 linear feet of asbestos containing material from Science II, and they are removing some 10,307 square feet and 200 linear feet of asbestos containing material from Tuscarora.
BU’s construction news webpage also states that the north end of the Old Union, the English department hallway in Bartle Library and the former Dickinson Dining Hall will undergo asbestos abatement this summer.
Ariella Sklar, a sophomore majoring in psychology, said asbestos projects on campus do not trouble her.
“It doesn’t bother me if [University officials] say it’s safe,” Sklar said. “We have to trust them.”