Reducing Health Concerns on Campus

Administrators work to keep students safe by installing lighting and emergency phones, implementing escort services, and following construction codes. Unfortunately, all that isn’t enough: The facilities in which students live and learn are susceptible to asbestos, lead, mold, and radon challenges that create health risks.

While it’s true that newer facilities shouldn’t experience asbestos and lead challenges, don’t be fooled into believing that they can’t pose any health risks — they’re just as much at risk for mold and radon as older facilities.

In addition, the trend toward sustainability means that more and more facilities are being renovated rather than torn down. No doubt it’s a good trend that also allows the present to connect with the past. Unfortunately, renovation can create health risks by unleashing asbestos and lead into the air.

How are administrators to know if asbestos, lead, mold, or radon are present and, if they are, how are they safely and legally resolved to reduce health risks?

According to the EPA, “asbestos is a durable, fire-retardant mineral that resists corrosion and insulates well. It is estimated that 3,000 different types of commercial products contain some amount of asbestos.” This includes floor tile and insulation, wallboard, and roofing materials, all of which are commonly found on campuses.

Many of these uses were banned in the 1970s because, if inhaled, asbestos fibers can cause health problems, like lung cancer, mesothelioma, or asbestosis. Illnesses take years to develop. In our daily lives, we are all exposed to small amounts of asbestos and, fortunately, we remain healthy. Therefore, intact and undisturbed asbestos-containing material does not pose a health risk. However, the risk of health problems increases with the number of fibers inhaled, so materials that release asbestos fibers into the air due to damage, disturbance, or deterioration through time, are a problem.

In order to renovate or demolish a facility built before the 1970s, administrators should conduct an asbestos survey, led by licensed and trained consultants. It is not legally required; however, it is strongly recommended from a legal standpoint to protect against future claims. The survey tells where and how much asbestos is in the facility. A visual inspection alone won’t suffice because asbestos fibers are so small they can’t be seen with the naked eye. Nor can they be smelled or tasted. Yet, once released into the air, they stay there.

If the survey shows the presence of asbestos-containing materials, and you do plan to renovate or demolish the facility, then there are guidelines to follow for proper removal, and those vary from state to state.

“Unless asbestos is located in an area where you’re renovating, you don’t necessarily need to remove it,” said Avi Levy, vice president of Operations for Norcross, GA-based Conversion Technology, Inc. “It’s up to you. If you choose to work around the asbestos, it’s critical that it remain undisturbed so no one involved in the renovation is exposed to it.”

Levy also advises that you assume that facilities built before the mid-1970s contain asbestos, and consider that it can be found in a variety of products, like floor mastic, drywall mud, plaster, roof shingles, window glazing and caulking. “It’s basically everywhere,” he noted.

If you’re going to embark on an abatement program, a licensed asbestos contractor seals the entire room or building with plastic and creates a negative pressure inside the containment area. Workers are protected with suits and respirators. The asbestos is sealed in leak-proof containers (double-bagging) and taken to an authorized landfill. Once completed, a licensed third-party asbestos consultant performs an air quality test to make sure there are no asbestos fibers above the regulatory limit in the abated space.

The EPA notes that lead is a toxic metal found in a number of products, including, but not limited to, paint, soil, dust, water, and furniture. When released into the air, lead falls to the floor. Lead poisoning occurs from ingestion.

Unfortunately, lead abatement regulations vary from state to state and are often confusing. The only federal entity with guidelines for lead abatement is the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Because of the lack of consistency on the regulatory level, most states focus on lead disposal instead of abatement. Regardless, only licensed lead abatement contractors are authorized to perform those services.

If you want to know if one of your facilities contains lead-based paint, hire a licensed consultant to conduct a survey. There are a number of sampling and testing methods, including dust lead loading, paint chip sampling, and soil sampling. One method, XRF (X-Ray Fluorescence), allows surfaces to be tested without any invasion or damage. The consultant uses the test most appropriate for your project.

If it turns out that the facility does contain lead paint, and you want to abate it, you have two options. The first is to encapsulate it, which is covering it with a special paint that adheres to the lead and creates a hard shell or casing over it.

The second option is to remove it. A contractor protects the immediate area (negative air pressure is not required), and workers are protected with gloves and respirators. It can be mechanically scraped away, which is an affordable option if you’re going to repaint and aren’t too picky about how the repainted area looks. It also can be chemically removed, which is more expensive, but also more effective and produces better-looking results. “Maybe the lead is only on the first of 10 layers of paint,” said Levy. “All 10 layers must be removed, which may require several applications of the chemical remover, resulting in a more expensive project.”

By the way, make sure the contractor you use is state licensed and has both corporate and individual licenses. Both of these licenses must be renewed yearly.

Mold is produced by a fungus. The EPA indicates that molds produce tiny spores to reproduce. “Mold spores waft through the indoor and outdoor air continually. When mold spores land on a damp spot indoors, they may begin growing and digesting whatever they are growing on in order to survive,” said Levy. There are molds that can grow on wood, paper, carpet, and foods.  When excessive moisture or water accumulates indoors, mold growth often occurs, particularly if the moisture problem remains undiscovered or unaddressed.”

When dry, mold becomes dormant and may become airborne. At this point, when inhaled, mold may cause health concerns that include allergic reactions, asthma, and other respiratory complaints.

Unfortunately, at this time, there are no federal regulations for mold abatement. “New York State has guidelines that others can adopt,” Levy indicated, “but even the EPA doesn’t have anything.”

Mold can be detected visually, and it’s important to note that not all molds are created equal. Some are not harmful, while others are extremely harmful. Some people are not susceptible to mold health issues, and others are highly susceptible.

The best way to prevent a mold problem is to control moisture, and the EPA warns: “There is no practical way to eliminate all mold and mold spores in the indoor environment.”

If you have experienced moisture challenges and believe you have mold, hire a consultant to test. Levy cautions that many people say they are mold experts, but not everyone is. Still, many contractors can perform asbestos abatement as well as mold remediation.

If you have mold in a building that you’re using or going to use, it’s important to remove it immediately and thoroughly because it’s only going to continue to grow and spread. This is as opposed to asbestos or lead, which can be abated when the budget and time allows. Similar to asbestos, the contaminated area is enclosed and negative pressure created. Workers are protected with gloves and respirators.

If you have mold in a building you’re going to renovate, contaminated materials can be removed to a landfill. Materials that are staying need to be cleaned. If you have mold in a building you’re going to demolish, said Levy, it does not need to be remediated beforehand, as the materials are going to the landfill, which is one big pile of mold anyway.

Radon is a radioactive gas that comes from the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, water, and rock, and which can move into the air. It’s ingested through inhalation, and increased exposure times, not just elevated levels, increases the risk of developing lung cancer.

Radon seeps from the soil into buildings primarily through dirt floors, floor drains, sump holes, and cinderblock walls, as well as via cracks in concrete floors and foundations. When trapped indoors, it can become concentrated to unacceptable levels. This is as opposed to it escaping from the soil to the outdoor air, where it is diluted to levels that offer little health risk.

Because radon is colorless, tasteless, and odorless, it can only be detected through testing. Be sure to hire a licensed professional who follows the Department of Nuclear Safety’s guidelines for radon measurement.

The remediation method chosen depends upon the building design, construction materials and other factors. Common methods include sealing cracks and other foundation openings, and the installation of a vent and fan system.

All in all, don’t be lulled into a sense of safety when it comes to your facilities. A little diligence and education, combined with following the best-known procedures, can ensure that health risks from asbestos, lead, mold, and radon are kept to a minimum.