Faculty and students at Canada's largest university are increasingly frustrated they weren't more clearly informed about asbestos in dust in their building, and are worried over the long-term health implications of exposures to the known carcinogen. Those concerns have now sparked a demand that a task force examine the university's handling of the situation.
Test results on Feb. 1 showed asbestos present in dust in some labs at the University of Toronto's medical-sciences building on the sixth and seventh floors.
Another positive result came from a dust sample on Feb. 24. Separate tests also showed asbestos-containing dust on the third floor on March 17. Five labs have been affected; two labs remain closed.
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Many people who work in or near the affected areas were not clearly informed of the asbestos until at least a month after the first positive test result, interviews with more than a dozen faculty members, graduate students and a caretaker who all work on the affected floors show. This meant that for weeks, students, researchers, professors and cleaners say, they continued to work in labs, clear dust and clean off equipment without full knowledge there was an unfolding asbestos situation in or close to their work areas.
Concerns over a lack of communication and over how air testing was conducted have prompted the university's faculty association to ask for a task force to be established to investigate the matter.
"We're unanimous," said Patricia Brubaker, a professor who works on the third floor. She and four other faculty members in the affected labs met with The Globe and Mail on Friday to express their concerns, among them, not being made aware of test results in a timely manner. "The administration has lost the confidence of faculty, staff and students in their ability to appropriately manage this situation and ensure the safety and security of people who work in the building."
A student petition, posted on Friday and signed by occupants of the sixth and seventh floor of the building, says lab members have been exposed to asbestos levels that are above occupational standards, and that all the affected labs are "seriously concerned about the unsatisfactory measures" taken to remediate the asbestos contamination. Other labs on both floors "were kept in the dark about these incidences," the letter said.
"I've lost confidence, and my lab people have lost confidence, that they [the university] know what they're doing," said one seventh-floor professor who asked not to be identified because of worries over job security. "So that perpetuates fear – whenever you see dust, you now worry: Am I going to get cancer 20 years from now?"
Grad students who work in the labs describe seeing unusual dust for months, as early as November or December, as a renovation and asbestos abatement were under way in the building. In January, they also noticed unusual amounts of white dust. They describe dust as coating their lab equipment, papers, laptops, benches and the floor.
Test results Feb. 1 showed asbestos in dust in three labs. The first disseminated notice from the university, however, appears to be around March 8.
One caretaker told The Globe of entering an affected lab on the sixth floor three or four times, sweeping and taking out garbage, without knowing it had been closed because of asbestos. The cleaner only found out after being informed from some students.
"They should have informed me," said the cleaner, who has lost sleep with worry.
Asbestos was commonly used in building materials, such as ceiling tiles, until the 1970s. This situation illustrates the challenges of dealing with asbestos in aging public buildings, and, if accidents do happen, the importance of clear and swift communication with workers so they can try to minimize exposures, health experts say.
"When you find these things, my feeling is you should move quickly on them" in notifying workers, said Paul Demers, director of the Occupational Cancer Research Centre at Cancer Care Ontario.
"We may be focusing on this one incident, but we need to think of the broader implications of this, and how careful we need to be in removing asbestos, and how challenging that is in buildings that are fully occupied."
Ontario's Ministry of Labour says its investigation is ongoing. It hasn't issued any orders, but says two requirements for documentation from the university are still outstanding.
The university says all its air-sample tests have come back as negative for asbestos. A report by an outside firm on Friday said the building is "safe for general occupancy."
"All required communication was done," Scott Mabury, vice-president of university operations, said, adding that faculty members in the affected labs were notified and notes were immediately placed on doors. He adds that the university has been trying "to correct a lot of unfortunate misinformation."
The university is changing practices – protocols across the university are being updated and it has expanded oversight, bringing in outside experts.
"I recognize and acknowledge their [students] concern. Our primary interest is their safety," he said, acknowledging communication has been "a challenge."
Some students say they have lost weeks and months of lab work and missed deadlines.
Farshad Azimi, a PhD student who works on the sixth floor in a lab adjacent to one of the shuttered rooms, says he first noticed "a lot of white powder" in the corridors in December. He assumed it was from construction, but now wonders what it was. He didn't get official notification of any problems until March 8.
"The university is where we work and we study and we're trying to build our future," he said.
"What we were appalled by was the fact that this was kept quiet, because it happened on other floors, and the information was not shared. ... If it happens, and we don't know the source or reason behind it, it would be good to inform everyone so ... we can prevent it from affecting people at work. That's the part a lot of people are upset about."