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Asbestos in Building 20 may delay its demolition

By Dave Watt

The MIT campus may never be rid of Building 20. The eyesore historical landmark, site of the development of microwave radar during World War II, has been marked for destruction since former provost John M. Deutch '61 called for its demolition three years ago.

But in order to tear down the building, MIT will have to spend millions of dollars to isolate, remove and dispose of each piece of concrete inside it. According to sources with MIT Physical Plant, the asbestos in Building 20's walls, which was mixed into the concrete, will take months or years to remove.

Almost all MIT buildings have asbestos in them somewhere. Many of the steam pipes which run through the basements and heat the dormitories use asbestos in their insulation, several sources said. Others, like Building 20, had asbestos mixed in their concrete.

When properly sealed, asbestos poses little hazard. The asbestos mixed in with the concrete in Building 20 poses no hazard to the building's occupants, according to the Industrial Hygiene

Office, which is located there. But cracks in the paint over the insulation, or crumbling concrete, could allow asbestos fibers into the surrounding air.

A cleanup of all the walls in Building 20 would take months, according to Physical Plant, and would require quarantining whole rooms in the building for days or weeks at a time while the walls are removed.

Director of Planning O. Robert Simha suggested that it could be a decade before Building 20 is finally replaced. "We've got an awful lot of other things to digest before we're going to tackle [Building 20]," he said.

Simha noted that MIT has neither the space to relocate the

people currently in Building 20, nor the money to clean up and replace the building. "Those are not in hand, although we will work toward it," he said.

Dr. Alan M. Ducatman, director of the MIT Environmental Medical Service, offered a different suggestion. "They ought to just cut it off at the foundation, and fly the whole building out with a helicopter," he joked.

"Better still, I hope they decide that it is a historic landmark, and we really can't get rid of it," he added. Either alternative would be less work and potential risk than an entire clean-up.

Physical Plant workers, who sometimes renovate asbestos-

laden buildings, run the greatest risk of exposure at MIT, Ducatman said. Before Physical Plant begins work in an old building, they ask the Industrial Hygiene Office to sample the ambient air and nearby old pipe insulation to analyze for asbestos.

The Industrial Hygiene Office handles roughly 300 requests for samples to be analyzed for asbestos each year, according to Kevin M. Coghlan, an industrial hygiene technologist in the Industrial Hygiene Office.

Of these, about 60 percent have a level of asbestos in them requiring a cleanup, Coghlan said. The Industrial Hygiene

Office takes requests from Physical Plant and responds to complaints of hazards from the MIT community.

In one recent example, a repair on a steam pipe joint in the weight-lifting room in Du Pont Athletic Center left an inch-long gash in its insulation through which asbestos was leaking. After a complaint, an analysis of the nearby air and the insulation showed the presence of asbestos.

Coghlan applied a temporary seal to the hole, and put in a request to Physical Plant to permanently seal it. The repair has not been made yet, but the room is still in use, since the temporary seal will hold for a few weeks, according to Coghlan.

The repair itself will probably take only about ten minutes to complete, Coghlan said. A worker will encircle the gash and the surrounding pipe in a glove bag, which isolates the asbestos from ambient air, and then replace the insulation.

Asbestos hazards result

mainly from inhalation

Asbestos waste requires some special handling. Yet compared to other dangerous wastes, it poses relatively little hazard. "When you bury asbestos, your problem is really done," Ducatman said. Once asbestos is buried in a landfill, it poses little hazard. Asbestos only poses a problem when airborne, he added.

"Burying it is OK. Drinking it is OK," Ducatman said. Breathing it, however, is not OK.

Asbestos fibers can be as little as three micrometers wide. When inhaled, the fibers irritate the lungs, and can cause shortness of breath in very large doses. Once inhaled, asbestos can gradually degrade lung efficiency, and increases the risk of getting lung cancer at high levels of exposure. But often the cancer does not appear for decades.

Asbestos may also pose a hazard at low levels of exposure, but there the data is much less clear. Asbestos is actually a generic name for several different minerals with similar chemical structures, some of which pose greater hazards than others.

The asbestos most common in the United States and Canada, known as chrysotile asbestos, is believed to be less carcinogenic than other varieties, according to some studies.

A controversial study published last year in Science suggested that the exposure children get to chrysotile asbestos in American schools causes one thousand times fewer deaths over the long term than playing high school football. But some say these results are misleading, and in fact do not even study the people most at risk to asbestos exposure such as construction workers or people who work on renovating old buildings.