Whistleblowers at the University of California, Davis are claiming construction workers accidentally exposed students to asbestos hazards at several locations on campus, and that school administrators were aware of the presence of the carcinogenic mineral, yet encouraged the work to continue anyway.
According to the allegations, the workers drilled holes through asbestos-contaminated ceilings and drywall while students were in the buildings and the ventilation systems running. If true, the findings indicate a major health risk for all those involved.
"They were aware of the fact that there was asbestos in those buildings," one whistleblower told News10, a Sacramento-based CBS affiliate. "The entire room is filled with dust. The air handlers are on. The dust is going in and the dust is blowing all over the building."
The whistleblowers include five students and two faculty members, all of whom came forth after they discovered the administration knew about the presence of asbestos in two campus facilities built before 1980. According to state and federal law, all buildings constructed before that date must be treated as if they contain asbestos.
Nonetheless, two of the whistleblowers, who are employed by the school’s Academic Technology Services Department, claim to have drilled holes in Wellman and Olson Halls for various electronic installations. Both of these buildings were constructed in the 1960s, making it highly likely that they contain traces of asbestos. If so, the activities are in direct violation of school safety protocols, as well as state and federal regulations. More urgently, they pose a serious health threat to all exposed individuals, including the whistleblowers themselves.
Mark Kellogg and Trevor Williams are the workers who claim to have accidentally released the asbestos, telling News10 that they drilled “hundreds of times” in older buildings throughout campus, often while students were in class and the air conditioning and ventilation systems turned on. Asbestos is extremely hazardous in the form of airborne “dust,” and such claims could mean that students were actively inhaling the cancer-causing material for at least as long as the installations took place. To make matters worse, UC Davis has a history with asbestos.
In 2011, Wellman Hall was evacuated because it was believed asbestos had been released into the building’s ventilation systems. As recently as 2013, Wellman Hall was found to contain asbestos in wall texturing and joint compounds, according to News10.
For their part, the university maintains that no such exposure ever took place. Andy Fell, associate director of news and media relations at UC Davis, claims the allegations have, nonetheless, been taken seriously. “We do have a set of policies regarding construction, renovation, and buildings that contain asbestos,” he said. “We investigate to see if any of the procedures have been ignored or violated, and we take appropriate action.”
Despite the reported degree of exposure, the UC Davis health and safety regulations claim employees will be informed, in writing, of all asbestos-containing materials and locations “in or near [their] work area or building.” But both Kellogg and Williams maintain they were never told where exactly the asbestos was located on campus.
Fell acknowledged that asbestos was widely used up until the mid-80s, and that it is certainly present in buildings, but “you can manage asbestos in place.”
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, but many studies claim that it is most harmful when it has been released into the air in the form of dust. Asbestos fibers are responsible for causing asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other asbestos-related diseases. In many cases, all it takes is one asbestos fiber in a person’s mesothelium to cause irreversible and deadly cancer.
“Problems can come during demolition when you suspect that asbestos has been released into the air,” Fell added. “So that’s why we have policies—to control that, and prevent that from happening. The testing that we’ve done does not show any airborne asbestos.”
Whether or not those buildings contain asbestos, and whether or not any students were exposed to the carcinogenic mineral, does not lessen the threat asbestos poses to facilities throughout California. Just last month, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit environmental organization, urged the state’s superintendent to investigate the status of asbestos in California schools. According to the group, dozens of schools in the state have been found to have asbestos problems, noting that several students and school employees may have been exposed.
At the very least, the string of recent incidents implies an urgent need for regulators and health officials to investigate asbestos contamination at schools and work facilities statewide.