UHCL removed asbestos-containing rock specimens from the Geology Department's former lab prep-specimen storage room (B3311), located in the Bayou Building.
Administrators and faculty are currently investigating when the rocks arrived. The rocks have not been used in any current or recent geological instruction or research experiments.
When any exposed asbestos is discovered in public buildings, there are government guidelines that regulate its removal. Following those guidelines and UH System policy for removal of asbestos-containing materials, UHCL’s Department of Environmental, Health and Safety engaged an independent asbestos consulting company to conduct air and surface-wipe sampling in and above the specimen storage room (B3311), and in the adjoining laboratory classroom (B3313).
The company – licensed by the Texas Department of State Health Services – described the hazard assessment as “low” risk in a work statement. Sampling was conducted in accordance to TDSHS Texas asbestos health protection rules.
The air and surface-wipe samples were sent to an independent testing facility certified by the American Industrial Hygiene Association. The facility used transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to inspect the samples. A series of sampling and testing was conducted from mid-June to late August. The two rooms were locked for testing and cleaning from early June to mid-October.
When asbestos-containing materials are disturbed, microscopic asbestos fibers are released into the air, like dust. Airborne asbestos fibers may be harmful if inhaled or ingested. The National Cancer Institute offers this perspective:
“Everyone is exposed to asbestos at some time during their life. Low levels of asbestos are present in the air, water, and soil. However, most people do not become ill from their exposure. People who become ill from asbestos are usually those who are exposed to it on a regular basis, most often in a job where they work directly with the material or through substantial environmental contact.”
No airborne asbestos was found in the specimen storage room (B3311), nor in the adjacent laboratory-classroom (B3313), nor in the building’s circulated air system.
The university also had surfaces tested for asbestos in settled dust in and above B3311 and B3313.
Surface-wipe samples found a total of 37 microscopic asbestos “structures” – a definition that includes asbestos fibers, fiber fragments and fiber bundles – on the walls, shelves, tables and other surfaces of the specimen storage room (B3311). A total of 45 asbestos structures were found on the storage room’s floor.
Also, three asbestos structures were found on the floor of the laboratory classroom (B3313), just beyond the doorway that connects it with the storage room. One asbestos structure was found on a table in B3313.
Further testing detected 49 asbestos structures above the specimen storage room’s ceiling grid (B3311). One asbestos structure was found on the grid above the laboratory classroom (B3313). Importantly, no airborne asbestos was detected in the air handlers that circulate cool and heated air through the building.
While there are government thresholds for exposure to airborne asbestos, no such thresholds have been established for asbestos in settled dust. Disturbance of settled particles may result in accidental inhalation or ingestion, the Environmental Protection Agency says. Asbestos cannot be absorbed through the skin, the American Cancer Society reports.
In this instance, the university’s state-licensed asbestos consultant recommended the rooms and its contents be professionally cleaned, rather than remediated.
The university had the specimen storage room (B3311) and the laboratory classroom (B3313) professionally cleaned by a licensed asbestos removal company. Although no airborne asbestos was detected in the instrumentation laboratory (B3134), which is across the hall from B3311 and B3313, this room was also cleaned as a precaution.
Cleaning started in September and was completed in early October. The asbestos-containing rock specimens were disposed in the process. The rooms passed TEM clearance requirements and were released for use on Oct. 15.
UHCL is notifying current and former employees, students and contractors who may have had recurring access to the specimen storage room (B3311) or the laboratory classroom (B3313) in order to advise them of the discovery.
The university engaged a consulting pulmonologist whose practice encompasses occupational medicine and asbestos-related health issues. Anyone with health questions may seek a free, confidential medical consultation. For contact information, call UHCL Health Services at 281-283-2626.