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The University of Montana found "unacceptable levels of asbestos fibers" from tests of the preschool in McGill Hall and directed children Tuesday to a new classroom in the College of Education.

UM did not provide details of the test results it received late Monday, but spokeswoman Paula Short said they would be available at a meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday (see box).

"We compared the surface site results against an EPA guideline for household levels," Short said in an email. "Montana Code does not identify a safety threshold for asbestos in settled dust. However, our decisions were made considering the EPA guidance."

Exposure to asbestos fibers can cause 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.

The relocation of the preschool on short notice was a reversal of the plans UM shared with families of ASUM (Associated Students of the University of Montana) Child Care Preschool on Saturday.

In an email to parents then, the preschool director said UM found asbestos in the air handler that served the preschool but initial test results did not "pose a measurable risk to our children or employees."

UM had planned to temporarily relocate the children in a couple of weeks in order to clean the asbestos "as a precaution."

However, surface test results Monday subsequently showed "unacceptable levels" of asbestos, and Short said UM spoke with most parents the same night and left voicemails for others about the relocation. The preschool has 24 children 4 to 5 years old and 23 children 2 to 3 years old.

***

Tuesday morning, some parents bringing their children to the preschool were worried about exposure, and others said communication from UM helped ease their concerns. Lu Hu, a faculty member in chemistry and parent of a child who is almost 3, said he wasn't too worried about the asbestos at that point.

"But we will see as we get more information," Hu said.

Workers hauled tables into the new space at the College of Education and rolled in a cart stacked with toys and supplies as adults carried toddlers into the new classroom.

"Thanks for finding us," a staff member said as parents walked in the door.

Several UM officials were in the room, including Short, communications and enrollment vice president Cathy Cole, facilities services director Kevin Krebsbach, and vice president of finance and administration Paul Lasiter.

Selina Frank, a UM student and parent of a 2-year-old, said she still has classes in McGill near the offices where asbestos was found, and she is concerned about exposure.

"I think it's silly our kids are told they're not safe, but the rest of us still have to go there (for class)," Frank said.

Doranda Standing Rock, a student and parent of a 5-year-old, said UM gave families short notice about the move. She too was concerned about the asbestos in McGill but hoped for the best.

"I am, but hopefully they've got it under control," Standing Rock said.

***

UM investigated the air handler that serves the preschool in McGill Hall on Jan. 19 following an earlier finding of asbestos in a separate air handler on Dec. 12, according to the campus. The separate air handler served three offices of McGill 212; UM confirmed those offices are clean, although Short said they may not yet be occupied.

The email to preschool families said facility managers were "reasonably certain there was no contamination" in the child care area from asbestos in the air system for McGill 212 because the preschool has a different air system.

"However, because asbestos is contained in the thermal system insulation throughout the building, in order to be certain, we decided to expand our testing to include the HVAC system supplying the child care (area)," UM said.

In an email, Short shared additional information about how and when UM decided to inspect the air system for the preschool.

"When we initially discovered the asbestos in the McGill office suite (2nd Floor), we believed it was an acute release as the result of damage to a pipe fitting and contained within a small area," Short said. "As we began the cleanup and repair, it became evident that age-related deterioration was likely a contributing factor in the release of asbestos-containing materials.

"Because the building materials (fittings and thermal system insulation) throughout the building (excluding newer additions and renovations) are the same age, we determined that we should examine the system that served the child care as a precaution."

She said an initial air quality test was conducted on the 19th and "came back at levels the contractor considers to be clean air." UM subsequently performed more exhaustive air quality testing on Jan. 23, she said, and "to date, all of the air quality testing has come back clean."

However, she noted surface testing conducted on Jan. 24 and results received late Monday showed "the presence of unacceptable levels of asbestos fibers," prompting the move. She said UM would provide Thursday a map with exact locations of the surface test sites.

***

Short noted additional tests are taking place in McGill Hall, as well.

"We are in the process of scheduling testing with GEM Environmental, Inc., within the child care (area) and throughout the building," she said. "They plan to collect samples (Tuesday). And results should be available in one to two days."

UM originally identified eight people who might have been exposed to the carcinogenic fibers in McGill 212 A, B and C. The university planned to offer baseline pulmonary testing to them and several others who subsequently reached out to the campus about their time in that suite.

Short said employees of the preschool will have the same option; the number of staff and students who worked there was not immediately available. 

Although one student earlier said he had wanted better communication from UM, a couple of parents said Tuesday they appreciated the way UM was addressing the problem.

"It's unfortunate we have to do this, but we're happy with the way they're handling it," said parent Chris Hansen.

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