The Daily Tar Heel

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Sunday January 29th

Officials Examine Asbestos Risk

Asbestos, which lurks in the ceilings and inner workings of many older University residence halls and classrooms, is used as a fireproof and soundproof insulating material.

But because health problems are possible when someone inhales disturbed asbestos fibers, experts recommend that UNC faculty and students take precautions when working and living around the substance, even though officials say chances of harmful exposure are low.

Gil Velez, asbestos coordinator for UNC's Health and Safety Office, said the highly scrutinized building material does not pose a threat as long as asbestos is not "pulverized" or crushed by hand.

According to reports from Velez, three diseases are associated with a high levels of asbestos exposure. These diseases, which can take 20 years or more to develop, include lung cancer; asbestosis, a type of lung scarring, and mesothelioma, a cancer in the lining of the chest.

"People hear the word 'asbestos' and they get frantic," Velez said. "If someone turns the fibers into a powder by crushing them up, then there is obviously a problem."

But Velez said asbestos usually appears in surfacing materials such as ceilings and floor tiles that are very difficult to crush.

Rebecca Casey, assistant director of marketing in UNC's Department of Housing and Residential Education, said asbestos exists in Parker, Teague, Avery and all four South Campus residence halls.

Although officials say asbestos is contained and exists at safe levels in these buildings, Casey said the housing department has given residents a fact sheet about asbestos and exposure risks. "We haven't experienced complaints because we keep residents well-informed," she said.

But freshman Jessica Ghent, who lives in Ehringhaus Residence Hall, said she worries about the asbestos in her room's ceiling. "I like where I live, but my roommate and I make sure we wash all the dishes in our room twice because we're worried about the (asbestos) fibers."

Ghent learned of the asbestos in her room's ceiling when she arrived in August. But Ghent, whose family has a past with lung cancer, said she would have liked to receive information about the hazardous substance prior to moving in.

But senior Amit Sharma, a resident assistant in Hinton James Residence Hall, said he has not heard many students on his hall complain about asbestos. "RAs have been talking to their residents about asbestos," Sharma said. "I specifically told people not to poke holes or mess with the ceiling."

Sharma said he passed out sheets at the beginning of the year informing students about asbestos and that he will continue to keep residents informed when they inquire about asbestos.

With RAs and other housing officials working to make residents more aware, Velez said efforts to educate people about asbestos must continue. "It all boils down to lack of knowledge," he said. "The biggest misconception is when people think if asbestos is there, it has to be removed."

When necessary, Velez said the University will hire asbestos abatement crews to minimize exposure risks. Velez said these crews ensure that airborne asbestos fibers are below .01 fibers per cubic centimeter, which is the North Carolina Health Hazards Control Unit's public exposure limit for asbestos.

Ron Colville, a construction manager in UNC's Building Services Department, said the majority of asbestos removal cases arise from construction or renovation projects.

Because of increased bond referendum and building grant monies, Velez said a large number of construction projects will include asbestos removal.

Although start and finish dates have not been set for construction, older structures like Woollen Gym, the Alumni Building and Howell, Mitchell, and Manning halls will undergo $4.2 million in renovations.

Like UNC's other capital improvement plans, which total $500 million -- the University's share of the $3.1 billion bond referendum that passed in November -- Colville said asbestos abatement has been budgeted for some renovation projects.

Brian Boehlecke, a professor of medicine in the pulmonary division of UNC Hospitals, also said renovations can boost asbestos exposure risks. But he said the chance of a UNC student or employee having problems with asbestos is quite low.

Regardless of the situation, Boehlecke said he encouraged students and faculty to be mindful and ask questions when they are not sure of asbestos exposure. "(Low risk) does not minimize the fact you should be careful with asbestos."

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