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UNC removing asbestos in Mitchell Hall highlights student concerns

university-asbestos-in-mitchell

A sign outside of a classroom gives a warning of asbestos in Mitchell Hall in early March, 2023. Photo Courtesy of Sam Vavra.

As the first public University in the nation, UNC faces challenges concerning the deterioration of buildings that have been standing for decades. 

Asbestos signs in Mitchell Hall have not only exposed this decay, but have also stirred concern among some students and faculty, who are concerned with the potential health risks.

Sarah Linville, a junior studying psychology, said she has class in Mitchell Hall every day for about an hour. When she saw a warning sign and a thin plastic sheet closing off an area she walks past daily, she was immediately concerned. 

“After the initial shock, I was kind of just like, ‘Why didn’t they tell us that?’” Linville said. “I was a little surprised and kind of disappointed that the University didn’t make any effort to communicate that to students because it just seems like something I would want to know.”

Asbestos is a general term used to describe a variety of naturally occurring minerals. However, most of what Linville knows about asbestos — like many non-experts — is that it can cause health issues, including lung cancer and mesothelioma. 

The signs in Mitchell include warnings about cancer and lung disease and express the need for protective clothing when entering the blocked-off area. 

According to the EHS website, 29 UNC buildings, including nine residence halls, "require additional precautions" due to asbestos-containing materials located on the walls or ceilings. 

The website also says that there could be more buildings with ceiling systems that contain asbestos — complete inspections of all of these buildings have not been performed.

A University spokesperson said the facilities are "safe to be in," but asks that people in affected buildings  avoid scraping or damaging ceilings, walls or pipes and place a facility work order before hanging objects on walls.

According to a statement from the executive director of UNC Environment, Health and Safety, Cathy Brennan, flooring in Room 008 of Mitchell Hall is being removed due to the presence of asbestos. The Facilities Services' safety measures of cordoning off the room with plastic sheets and placing asbestos signs outside are in line with correct work practices, the statement said. 

Glenn Morrison is a professor in the UNC Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering in the Gillings School of Global Public Health who studies indoor air pollution. He said before the long-term health risks of asbestos were widely known, the material was used in construction because of its resistance to friction and heat. 

If tampered with, however, asbestos can become an air pollutant that is easy to breathe in and can result in health issues, he said. 

“If you know that a place has old flooring that has asbestos in it, which used to be quite common, because people walk on it — you might have to test to make sure it’s not becoming airborne,” Morrison said. 

After lead was found in over 140 drinking water fixtures on campus, Linville said she feels that students are now more weary with similar issues. 

When a picture of the asbestos sign in Mitchell was posted on the popular anonymous Instagram account @uncquirks, reactions varied from humor to concern.

Nonetheless, the University said that it remains committed to the health and safety of all members of the community. 

“One of UNC-Chapel Hill’s top priorities is the wellness and safety of its students, faculty, staff and visitors. The University takes appropriate measures to keep asbestos-containing material (ACM) from crumbling and releasing fibers into the air, and thus is not considered to be a health risk,” Brennan said in the statement. 

Additionally, the University provides asbestos awareness training to inform anyone interested in learning more.

In the future, Linville said she hopes that UNC will make strides to better communicate with the community about similar issues, rather than letting students discover these problems coincidentally. 

“I definitely think full transparency is important because I think if you want to have students' trust in the University you have to be willing to communicate and let us know what’s going on,” Linville said.

@annie_truluck

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