When most think of asbestos and the dangers it poses, they probably picture construction workers, military veterans, firefighters and others who work in occupations that put them in close proximity to potentially hazardous materials.
Few realize that nearly every building that was built in the United States prior to the 1980s has a good chance of being constructed with asbestos.
Parents certainly don’t survey their children’s college dorm buildings with concerns about exposure to carcinogens. Yet, that is exactly what happened on the campus of what is arguably the country’s most prestigious university.
Now, parents around the country are taking a second look at the buildings in which their college students are being housed and educated.
The incident involved a senior at Harvard living in Winthrop House, a century-old house on the campus that is admittedly in need of renovations, and which is scheduled for work during the 2016-2107 academic year.
Resident Matthew W. G. Walker was forced to temporarily relocate out of his dorm room in the building after a chunk of plaster from the ceiling of his closet fell, spreading dust over his belongings and clothing. When the dust was tested, it proved to be contaminated with asbestos. In addition to having to move until repairs could be made, Walker had to discard all of his belongings that were stored in his closet.
The school maintains that there were no violations of any building codes and that they “have specific maintenance protocols for avoiding the damage or disturbance of potentially asbestos-containing materials.”
The incident, however, raised awareness of the presence of the deadly carcinogen, and how easily asbestos can go from being a benign substance that is contained to being a friable substance which can pose very real dangers.
The good news is that Walker was apparently unharmed, though some of the items he needed to throw away had sentimental value and he refers to disposing of the items as “a big mess,” but he did express disappointment and concern that the school had not notified residents of the presence of asbestos in the building.
It has been well established that exposure to asbestos is the cause of malignant mesothelioma, a rare and deadly form of cancer that has a long latency period. This means it can take decades for symptoms to appear, leaving those who have been diagnosed wondering where their exposure came from.