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Gene Burns worked in McGill Hall for 25 years at the University of Montana before "unacceptable levels" of asbestos led campus officials to shutter the building this week.

"I am coughing and I am wheezing and I don't feel good, and my wife has been telling me this for a year," Burns said.

He wanted to know how high the levels of the carcinogen are in his office, and he said he believes everyone in the building would want to know if their specific area was contaminated.

Gabrielle Tusberg's question was different. She's working on her bachelor's in fine arts in the School of Media Arts, and her job the last three years has been working in the equipment room in McGill. Because it's likely closed for the rest of the semester, she wanted to know what student workers like her will do.

"That's my reliable income," Tusberg said.

Imre DeVolder worried about his daughter, who spent the better part of the last six to 12 months in the McGill preschool, but was also concerned about his home.

Does he need to throw out his couch because his little girl may have brought home asbestos fibers? Will UM care for his daughter if she develops asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma decades later?

"We will live in fear of our children developing one of these diseases for the rest of our lives," DeVolder said.

Friday, UM officials and consultants fielded those questions and more at a public meeting about the closure of McGill Hall since tests showed "unacceptable levels" of asbestos.

UM detected asbestos on Dec. 12 in an air system connected to three offices in McGill, and the campus cleaned those offices. That detection prompted further investigation in the building, and UM found high levels of asbestos Monday night on surfaces in the preschool, which is connected to a different air system.

UM relocated the preschool Tuesday, and on Thursday, it closed the entire building.

At an earlier meeting for families, parents said UM did not communicate with them quickly enough about test results, and it should have moved the children earlier.

UM officials said air tests had come back fine, leading them to believe surface tests also would not turn up unacceptable levels of asbestos. Instead, some of those tests detected chrysotile and amosite asbestos fibers at levels far exceeding Environmental Protection Agency clean-up thresholds, prompting an immediate move of the preschool.

Friday, spokeswoman Paula Short said UM would make every test result public on its website, continue to consult with a wide array of experts and support the health of preschoolers and other building occupants into the future.

"There is a process at the university if your children develop complications as a result of their time in McGill Hall and their exposure to asbestos," Short said.

"Even if it's 40 years later?" a parent asked. The latency period for some asbestos-related illnesses can last decades.

"Even if it's 40 years later," Short said. "Yes."

The closure of McGill took place just 30 hours earlier, Short said, so the team at work on all of the questions and logistics did not have every answer. Campus officials were issuing new keys to employees in new offices; calling asbestos cleanup consultants about the best ways to clean laptops versus desktops versus handbags; and researching the medical literature for information on asbestos and young children, which is sparse.

Although UM did not have answers to all the questions Friday, Short said the team was recording each one, talking through solutions and planning on ways to be proactive with other old buildings on campus.

A UM official in the audience also wrote down the concern about income and planned to investigate a financial bridge for students.

At the meeting, Short and Kevin Krebsbach, head of Facilities Services, also apologized to the parents, faculty, students and staff in attendance.

"In my 30 years here, this is one of the most difficult things for me to come to, especially with the children in the day care," Krebsbach said.

Said Short: "The university will support you. The university is going to be here. And the university is going to honor its responsibility and obligation to your children and to you."

Some of the parents left the meeting in tears.

***

Paul Lasiter, vice president for research and finance, said UM would expand the air and surface tests for all of McGill. "That will happen,'' he said. "We will know what areas are affected and how significantly they are affected."

Paul Haber, head of the University Faculty Association, said a number of people had contacted him about other old buildings on campus, especially the Clapp Building. In that building, some asbestos remediation has taken place, but some still needs to happen. UM employs a "manage in place" protocol there.

"Is this incident in McGill going to lead to testing of other buildings where we know that there's asbestos?" Haber said. "We need to communicate to the entire university community what is being done so people can try to get back to feeling safe in the workplace."

UM tests for asbestos in conjunction with building renovations, but an official earlier noted that 2011 was the most recent year it had a test result that showed the preschool was clear.

Alex Metcalf, a faculty member who works in the Clapp Building and a parent with two children in the preschool, said asbestos isn't a surprise on campus. However, he wanted to know the reason testing hadn't been taking place on a regular basis, and he said ongoing testing makes sense so UM can identify when exposures take place.

"My request is that that testing goes on in the future," Metcalf said.

Another occupant of the Clapp Building also requested testing, especially given some "black stuff" that comes out of the vents. "It's alarming. It's very scary. And I just think we could be proactive with some of these other buildings."

Currently, UM trains technicians to identify friable asbestos visually. If they see it while on other jobs, the campus seals off the area and cleans it. However, UM does not conduct routine inspections for asbestos, which can be inhaled or ingested if it's crumbly.

Officials noted Thursday some material in old buildings is starting to degrade. Friday, Short said UM will increase its visual inspections, and it will also discuss regular testing. Krebsbach said the conversation will take place "in the really near future."

Anna-Margaret Goldman, the director of MonTECH, said her office has been sending equipment to people with disabilities across Montana. MonTECH has a mission to improve lives with technology, and she wanted to know what the risk might be to the people who receive the equipment and how to provide them good information.

"Some of them are medically fragile," Goldman said.

Short said the campus heard from one of her clients, and she recommended she and Goldman talk with an industrial hygienist about how to clean the equipment.

Generally, Short said the one factor people care about the most — the health of the preschoolers — is the hardest one to quantify and the most difficult thing about the contamination in McGill. 

As the campus works forward, Short said UM is committed to the parents and children without reservation. She said the team is talking about a way to formalize UM's commitment so it is permanent and exists even when parents are deceased and children are adults.

Coverage for current employees is already in place. Faculty, staff and students can file worker compensation claims and take lung capacity tests, and they have the option to take that action now, according to UM.

Although many participants had questions, some also offered observations. Barbara Koostra, former director of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, said she was moved into one of the offices in 212, where asbestos first was found Dec. 12.

Early last semester, Koostra said she bought an air purifier, and she complained both verbally and in writing about the conditions of the office. But she never heard a response from the former dean. Workers tried to help, but she said the temperatures were extreme, and the fumes from idling trucks outside came into the office.

"I really do not completely understand how the HVAC system was self contained, and I'd love to see evidence," Koostra said.

She also said she was curious to know the reason no one asked her to help identify others who had spent time in that space while it was "hot," or likely exposed to friable asbestos. She also criticized the university for the way it handled museum records for a collection valued at $30 million and said she was "shocked" it took 51 days to close the building.

"Today is the first day I've heard anybody say they're sorry about this affair," Koostra said.

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