One surface test for asbestos in the McGill Hall preschool at the University of Montana showed 240,000 fibers per square centimeter on a shelf roughly three feet tall, according to GEM Environmental, Inc.
One at a higher level that would require an adult to use a ladder to reach hit 400,000 parts per square centimeter. But other lower shelves also registered high readings, according to an industrial hygienist with GEM, which has been testing in McGill Hall.
"I was just surprised by how high some of the high counts were," said Christopher Casas, principal industrial hygienist and geologist with GEM, in a phone interview Tuesday.
Asbestos is a carcinogen, and when people breathe it, the fine particles settle in their lungs. The fibers can cause lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma even 10 to 40 years after exposure.
UM started ordering asbestos tests in McGill after contamination of three offices was found in December and subsequently cleaned. Air tests in McGill Hall have not shown unacceptable levels of asbestos, but tests of surfaces, such as a table children used, have showed a "potential hazard."
Those results pose a challenge for UM, said risk manager Jason Sloat after a recent public meeting about contamination in McGill Hall. He said regulations cover airborne contamination, but that isn't applicable so far in McGill.
"One of the biggest challenges for us has been the fact that there is no regulatory standard for surface contamination. Period," Sloat said.
UM officials earlier noted the EPA considers 5,000 fibers per square centimeter to be the threshold for residential cleanup. At public meetings, UM representatives have said there is no safe level of asbestos, but neither is there a correlation between the cleanup threshold and health.
Tuesday, UM communications director Paula Short said the campus is bringing to Missoula two certified industrial hygienists who have experience with asbestos in settled dust to review test results to date, evaluate the building, and make recommendations for further action. UM holds additional informational meetings Thursday in the University Center Theater on the status of McGill Hall; one is at noon with general information, and one geared to parents starts at 4 p.m.
Short said all asbestos is hazardous in general; the consultants will help UM give people a sense of the danger and risk of the specific situation at McGill Hall. She hopes they will be able to provide more information for the public updates Thursday.
Last week, UM relocated 47 children from the preschool in McGill after test results showed "unacceptable levels" of asbestos. Thursday, it shuttered the entire building, moving students and some 70 employees, including faculty and staff.
UM has tested many areas of the preschool and other rooms in McGill Hall, and additional tests are underway.
Short said tests also are being conducted in the new preschool at the College of Education and at a child care center at the Craighead Apartments, part of the X-shaped complex; results are pending.
On Jan. 21, the highest surface test from the preschool showed 110,000 fibers per square centimeter, but on Jan. 31, the highest level showed 400,000 fibers per square centimeter. Generally, Casas said the readings were high, and every single room that's been tested so far in McGill Hall shows asbestos.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency counts 1,000 parts per square centimeter as a low reading; 10,000 parts per unit as above "background," or above the level expected for a building of that age and insulation; and 100,000 fibers per square centimeter to be high, Casas said.
Casas said GEM used "wipe samples," in surface tests. He said the method wipes clean an entire surface, and the test result shows an outcome that's more representative of the content. Chrysotile and amosite are the types of asbestos in McGill.
He also said air and surface sampling aren't done simultaneously because wiping a surface could contaminate the air and cause a spike in test results.
"Some of the surfaces have significant deposits of dust," Casas said.
Bob Brownell, environmental chief operating officer for Northern Industrial Hygiene, Inc., said UM is also conducting "activity-based sampling" in the preschool in McGill and the rest of the building. Brownell, who is also working with UM on the contamination, said a worker in protective gear will mimic the activities in the building that would be similar to those in the preschool, and elsewhere, while wearing an air monitor.
He said it's impossible to tell the frequency of releases, but he estimates people in McGill were exposed to a combination of very small amounts over a long period of time with possibly a couple of occurrences of short-term larger releases, such as when damage to a pipe took place.
He said UM will share whatever information it finds with the public.
"The university has been just very clear with me that they want to be as transparent as they can be, so we are presenting what we have and trying to keep people up to date as we do it," Brownell said. "It might not always be as fast as people would like it to be, but we're getting there."
The precise actions UM took in the rest of McGill Hall between Dec. 12, when a technician found crumbly asbestos in an air system that feeds three connected offices, and Jan. 19, the date of air tests for other areas, isn't completely clear. Short said a series of discoveries took place that led UM to different actions.
For example, when Casas was in the building on Jan. 17 for clearance testing in the three offices UM cleaned from the Dec. 12 find, UM asked him to look in another location, and he found "additional disbursement, which was much larger," according to UM.
Director of Facilities Services Kevin Krebsbach said UM likely will adopt a federal standard that's in place for kindergarten through high school, which requires visual inspections every six months. In the meantime, workers are creating a wider inventory of asbestos on campus, including asbestos in hard-to-reach corners, in order to create a protocol for regular inspections in the future.
Short said UM is discussing how to proceed with testing beyond McGill. She also said UM is revising a protocol for maintenance workers, who are trained to identify asbestos. In the past, UM asked them to report any findings of friable asbestos while out on unrelated calls; going forward, she said UM will ask them to confirm they did not see asbestos while they are on other routine maintenance jobs.