Carcinogen lies within campus

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An old problem came back to haunt Ryerson this month when a broken water pipe knocked asbestos onto the ceiling of the saunda in the women’s change room at the RAC.

“A pipe burst in the sauna that caused the roof to cave in and spill some asbestos,” said Ian Hamilton, director of campus planning and facilities.

The pipe burst occurred March 5 and asbestos removal began last week. The sauna is shut down and barricaded and will not open for another week and a half.

Still, Jane Brown, marketing and communications manager for sports and recreation is confident the situation is under control.

“A section of the change room had to be partitioned off and asbestos removal experts were called in. I’m sure they’re adhering to whatever regulations the law requires,” said Brown.

Asbestos, which is commonly found in building insulation, was banned from commercial use in 1985 after it was revealed to be a deadly carcinogen.

The diseases most commonly linked to long-term asbestos inhalation are mesothelioma (cancer of the protective sac in the lungs) and asbestosis (scarring of the lungs).

Most of the buildings at Ryerson were built between 1950 and 1971. Asbestos can be found in many buildings’ insulation, floor tiles and ceiling panels.

This latest asbestos scare is one of several that have occurred at Ryerson.

Between 1982 and 1984 Ryerson set out to encapsulate all exposed asbestos. Still, several rooms had to be shut down in the early ‘90s because some asbestos remained exposed.

In 1990, ball sports were banned in the lower gym in Kerr Hall West out of fear that bouncing could cause asbestos to fall from the ceiling.

Ryerson planner Manny Ravinsky is confident students are not at risk this time because the asbestos in the sauna was non-friable – the safer type of asbestos.

However, Keith McMillan, the Ontario representative for Ban Asbestos Canada, said there are no safe kinds of asbestos exposure and that there are risks involved even with short-term contact.

“We do not accept that one fibre of white chrysotile is safe,” he said. “The mechanism that causes cancer occurs at the cellular level, so it makes sense that one fibre can initiate a cell and trigger a cancerous process because the genesis occurs at that level.”

But Tim Sly, director of the school of occupational and public health at Ryerson, said the health risks involved are greatly exaggerated.

“This is an old idea that’s still around and it’s not realistic,” said Sly. “If you walked to Ryerson this morning along Yonge Street, for every 100 metres, you’re inhaling tens of thousands of asbestos fibres into your lungs.

“It’s just there in the environment. It’s not a rare substance by any means. To say one fibre will do it, well… we know that it take much more.”

According to Health Canada, when covered, asbestos does not pose a risk. However, when buildings begin to break down, asbestos may be released into the atmosphere. The most deadly aspect of asbestos inhalation is that the latency period can last up to 40 years. The particles build up and literally choke the lungs, causing heart failure and death.

McMillan said the best way for Ryerson and other institutions to deal with their asbestos problems is to remove it from campus completely.

However, Marcus Anthes, an occupational hygienist for Pinchin Environmental, a leader in asbestos-removal programs in Mississauga, said the costs to make the campus asbestos-free would be astronomical.

“That would be crazy, impractical and you just couldn’t do it,” said Anthes, who is also a Ryerson grad.

“Any building that contains asbestos by law has to have a management program – you don’t have to rush out and remove it if it’s contained – and I remember from my years at Ryerson that the school had an excellent program of control, monitoring and containment.”

Adam Neave, another Ryerson graduate and an occupational health and safety consultant with one of Canada’s largest law firms, has inspected Ryerson buildings and confirmed that asbestos at Ryerson is not a major issue.

“I can tell you that I’ve worked with asbestos in Ryerson before and they are quite diligent when it comes to the proper procedures.

“But obviously with their old buildings, they do have asbestos.”

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