Parents of children who attended the University of Montana preschool in McGill Hall before "unacceptable levels" of asbestos were found criticized officials Thursday about waiting too long to share test results and relocate students.
"I think somebody needs to take responsibility for this because it looks like negligence," said one parent.
Parents said UM had results that showed high levels of asbestos in McGill Hall on Jan. 21, a week before they decided to move the preschoolers to a new classroom in the College of Education.
UM officials said that because earlier air tests in the preschool had not found a measurable risk from asbestos, they had not expected to find high levels in surface tests. When they did, they decided to move the children immediately.
"We were very surprised to see the loadings on the accessible surfaces," said Bob Brownell, with Northern Industrial Hygiene, Inc.
At the informational meeting Thursday night, parents also questioned the lack of ongoing testing in a building known to contain the carcinogen. And they called for explanations of data showing significantly higher levels of asbestos than a federal threshold for cleanup.
"Forever, we'll have this anxiety that our kids are going to get cancer," another parent said.
UM abruptly moved 47 preschool children from the ASUM (Associated Students of the University of Montana) Child Care Preschool in McGill to the College of Education on Tuesday morning after test results showed "unacceptable levels" of asbestos.
Thursday, UM closed all of McGill Hall, a 50,000 square foot building, to students and some 70 faculty, staff and other employees.
Exposure to asbestos fibers can cause asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma and other lung diseases. The latency period for developing the illnesses can be as little as 10 years or as long as 40 years.
At the meeting Thursday, UM representatives agreed the asbestos found in the preschool at McGill Hall appeared to have come from the air system as the result of a "long term" degradation.
Some of the surfaces that showed high levels were places children could touch, such as a table. Parents noted some of those same places were ones that would be regularly cleaned, and they feared the severity of the problem as a result.
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UM officials noted the EPA considers 5,000 asbestos fibers per square centimeter to require cleanup in a residence. A swipe from a table in the preschool showed 15,000 fibers per square centimeter.
The highest level found in the preschool was 110,000 fibers per square centimeter. At the meeting, Short said the highest level was from the top of a light fixture.
The recent problems in McGill first came to light on Dec. 12 when a technician found crumbly asbestos in an air system linked to McGill 212. UM earlier said it cleaned that contamination, which is in a separate air system than the one tied to the preschool.
Kevin Krebsbach, director of Facilities Services, said a worker subsequently examined a tunnel linked to the preschool, and the problem was visible there. Since maintenance isn't required in that area, he said none of the current technicians at UM had reason to inspect it before.
"We rarely go in there, if ever," Krebsbach said.
Paul Lasiter, vice president for administration and finance, said "scores of people" have been working on the problems behind the scenes. He also said the closure of McGill Hall might run for months, a much longer period than an earlier estimate of two weeks.
"Your safety, your security, is of paramount importance to us," Lasiter said. "We take this very seriously. The anxiety that you are feeling, we are feeling. Know that. Know that this administration cares."
Going forward, communications director Paula Short said UM planned to confirm the source of the chrysotile and amosite asbestos fibers, remove the source, conduct a full scale cleanup, and then undergo comprehensive testing.
She also said UM was in contact with experts to understand the best way to handle the situation.
UM officials noted asbestos is widely present in older buildings in the form of sprayed fire proofing, pipe insulation and floor tile. It was used in as many as 3,000 building products in the 1970s. Some material is starting to crumble, and that's when asbestos can become airborne and enter the lungs or be ingested.
Krebsbach said workers are trained to identify it, and they fix it when they come across it. However, he said "we don't routinely test every building on campus."