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Asbestos was recently discovered in Winthrop House at Harvard University, causing an undergraduate student, Matthew W.G. Walker ’16, to temporarily move out.
Walker returned to his dorm to find a chunk of plaster in his closet, which had fallen from the ceiling. The chunk had also caused dust to fall all over his belongings. After testing the material, it came back showing asbestos was indeed contained in the ceiling piece.
Harvard University administrators claim there is no real threat to students living there unless the levels of the carcinogenic materials were higher in the testing.
Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Senior Director of Facilities Operations, Zachary M. Gingo, stated, “Unless asbestos is made ‘friable,’ or into a powder, the substance is not dangerous.” Harvard employs third-party experts to handle the asbestos in accordance to strict health and safety requirements.
These asbestos contractors specialize in asbestos testing, removal, and consulting. It’s important to hire the trained experts because if any part of the process is not conducted properly, then asbestos exposure can occur.
But if the asbestos is disturbed or damaged, then the fibers release into the air. At that point they can be inhaled by those in the surrounding vicinity and lead to a host of health problems, including mesothelioma cancer. This type of cancer is extremely aggressive and affects the membrane lining of the lungs and abdomen.
Winthrop House Masters Stephanie Robinson and Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. claim the “standards of construction for older buildings” are the real reason this has occurred. Asbestos was commonly used as a fireproofing and insulation agent prior to the late 1970s when its use sharply declined as the dangers became more evident.
“Asbestos has been found in rooms at Winthrop House, either during repair work or during episodes where something breaks and materials behind the wall are exposed,” said Robinson and Sullivan in a recent statement. “No students or staff members in the House are exposed to asbestos in ways that would break building codes.”
“At first I was really disappointed that Winthrop wouldn’t have notified us [of the asbestos],” said Walker. The asbestos incident has not caused any known health problems thus far, but Walker did have to dispose of all his belongings, clothes, etc. that were in the closet.
“The incident demonstrated that the more than century year-old house is in need of renovations,” said Walker. Winthrop staff took care of repairing the closet and ensuring his room and all other rooms in the suite were no longer contaminated with asbestos.
The Winthrop House dormitory will receive those renovations in the 2016-2017 academic year. At that time, workers are set to abate any of the toxic substance that could get disturbed during construction.