Asbestos leak during renovations forces closure of two University of Toronto labs

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An asbestos leak has forced the closure of two labs at the University of Toronto, amid a major renovation project meant to remove the deadly material from its Medical Sciences Building.

The fibres were found in three separate instances in February and March in dust-samples at lab-related rooms on the St. George campus — months after the university began work to remove the substance from seven locations on the 50-year-old  building's third, sixth and seventh floors as part of a $190-million project to improve labs across its three campus.

"In that removal process, we did have an incident where asbestos leaked out of the area that we tried to contain it in. And that's what led to extra sampling, changes in procedures, lots of air sampling…because the critical component about air is that that is the route for human exposure," vice-president of university operations Scott Mabury said.

A known carcinogen, asbestos is banned in some 50 countries worldwide and is on track to be banned in new construction and renovations here in Canada by 2018. The substance was commonly used in building materials from the 1950s to the 1980s for insulating and fireproofing.

No hazardous levels in air, university maintains

Mabury says the leaks were caused in part by the renovation process itself. In one case, a worker drilled a hole in a wall, that led to a pile of dust containing asbestos to fall to the floor. In another, dust containing the substance escaped an containment area that was insufficiently sealed. And in the third, air pressure forced dust from a service shaft where work was being done. 

The university says it has tested more than 200 air samples throughout the building to date and that all have turned up below the occupational exposure limit. After the three positive cases were found, it says, the locations "were immediately closed and thoroughly cleaned and tested."

The university says asbestos fibres are only released during "vigorous agitation such as sweeping" and that still-air testing found no evidence of hazardous levels of asbestos in the air or ventilation system. No classrooms, lecture halls or public areas were affected.

But it says it is reviewing its procedures to trace the source of the fibres found in the positive-testing samples, and will take concrete measures to minimize the risk of any future breaches.

That's not enough for chair Ryan Culpepper of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 3902, which represents teaching assistants and contract workers at the university.

'Not a high enough level of safety'

He wants assurances that continued renovations won't lead to further leaks and that those using the building won't endanger themselves if they use the building while the project is still underway.

"There are cleaners in there with brooms and rags. People are doing experiments in there. They're moving papers around. So it's not comfort to us… That is not a high enough level of safety for us."

Meanwhile, the university's graduate students' union is reminding students to flag any concerns they have with their supervisors.

"At this time, the UTGSU Executive Committee reminds all students who work and/or study in the MSB that they have the right to refuse to enter the building should they feel that their safety is at risk," the union's executive committee said a statement posted to its Facebook page.

On Friday, University of Toronto's Faculty Association vice-president Terezia Zoric issued a letter expressing "serious concerns" about the university's handling of the asbestos, including what it called a lack of transparency and "air testing results that do not comply with asbestos regulation requirements."

For its part, the university says the Ministry of Labour has been to the building and has not issued any directives for further action.

CBC Toronto reached out to the ministry to ask if the building has been deemed clear of any hazards, but was told it could not respond until Monday.

"It's exceedingly rare to have a breach of this kind, so we will take what we've learned from this and apply it everywhere we have work on campus," Mabury said.

"Unfortunately, many of our buildings have asbestos."

The Ministry of Labour is expected to return next week to continue its review, Mabury says, and he's hopeful the labs will reopen next week.