On April 11, asbestos was discovered in the sculpture studios of Nixon Theatre in two of the five ceramic kilns in the yard behind the theatre. The building’s faculty alerted UCI’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S), who employed the services of P.W. Stephens Inc., an asbestos remediation company, to clear the area.
“[The kilns] had not been used in years and one of them was not working,” said graduate art major Steve Walters, as he worked on his sculpture project near the building. “They had been sitting there a long time. These guys showed up in full respirator suits.”
Workers from P.W. Stephens, wearing white plastic suits to cover their eyes, skin, noses and mouths, removed the asbestos from each kiln. The yard containing the kilns was cordoned off with caution tape. No students or faculty were allowed into the area, but the view from a second-story balcony revealed over a dozen small bags of toxic waste. Once collected, the asbestos was loaded into a large container behind the building, sealed on all sides.
“We found 25 pounds of asbestos altogether,” said Luis Espinoza, the labor supervisor from P.W. Stephens Inc. “Though it was less than one percent of the total waste.”
The kilns were often used in the past to bake and dry various ceramic art projects, though in recent years they have fallen prey to disuse and disrepair. Asbestos, a versatile insulation material, formed part of the paneling on the exterior surfaces of each kiln. The Environmental Health and Safety office had assessed the kilns on April 24, 2008, but since there was no danger of exposure or air contamination, there was no need to remove them. Only once the kilns were taken down and opened this year did the asbestos raise concerns.
“It was immediately addressed the following morning. The area was restricted, air monitoring was conducted and an asbestos remediation contractor was called in to perform clean-up,” said Rito Rincón, an Industrial Hygiene Specialist of the EH&S office. “There were no difficulties in the clean-up or clearing process.”
Though the mere mention of the word “asbestos” often inspires fear and dread, it must be noted that asbestos itself is a naturally occurring silicate substance, and serious illnesses – asbestosis, mesothelioma and malignant lung cancer – only result from constant long-term exposure. An article published in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology in 2002 noted that members of the general population “have tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of asbestos fibers in each gram of dry lung tissue, which translates into millions of fibers and tens of thousands of asbestos bodies in every person’s lungs.”
Many consumer products have legally been allowed to contain trace amounts of asbestos since 1991, when the case of Corrosion Proof Fittings vs. the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) overturned the EPA’s Asbestos Ban and Phase Out Rule. However, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 still bans asbestos-laden corrugated paper, rollboard, commercial paper, specialty paper, flooring felt and any new uses of asbestos. The case’s ruling revokes the ban on insulation material like the kind found on the kilns and with the TSCA. It does not require the removal of asbestos until it poses a threat to the surrounding air quality.
The clearing process, which started two weeks ago, has just been completed. To allay the fears of students who work in the area, EH&S office has officially declared the building and yard clear and safe for reoccupation.