U of T fires long-time contractor after asbestos leaks at Medical Sciences Building

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The University of Toronto has severed its relationship with a long-time contractor after a series of asbestos leaks were discovered during a major renovation project, CBC Toronto has learned.

The renovations were meant to remove the deadly material from the university's Medical Sciences Building.

The vice president of university operations, Scott Mabury, told CBC Toronto the contractor, which he refused to name, is no longer continuing its asbestos removal work in the 50-year-old building and will not be given any further contracts on the St. George campus.

"We have zero tolerance. And this is a contractor who's worked on this campus for a long time, multiple years — never had an issue before. We've never had a breach like this. In the last 10 years that I was able to look, we've never had a problem like this," said Mabury, who is also a professor of environmental chemistry.

"So we needed to send a strong message."

'Safe for general occupancy'

Earlier this month, the university was forced to close two labs in the building following the discovery of asbestos fibres in dust samples on three separate instances in February and March.

The fibres were found in lab-related rooms on the St. George campus months after the university began work to remove the substance from seven locations on the building's third, sixth and seventh floors. It was part of a $190-million project to improve labs across its three campuses. 

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

In a written statement Friday, the university deemed the building "safe for general occupancy" — a conclusion it says is based on more than 200 air samples taken in and around the building over the past two months.

'A couple of surreal weeks'

The statement goes on to say a thorough review is underway to trace the source of the "localized incidents" where asbestos fibres were found.

That's not enough for physiology and medicine professor Adria Giacca, who says she doesn't want to re-enter her lab until she sees documented proof that it's safe to do so. 

"The emotional experience is really devastating. Quite frankly I've had a couple of surreal weeks," she said.

Giacca says dust in her office tested positive for asbestos on March 20. It was the fifth room and the third separate time the deadly substance was discovered in the building.

Her lab has since been reopened, but she says the university could have done a better job of communicating that her lab could be at risk, letting her know of the result a full five weeks after the fibres were initially found. 

The university says it reports air sample results daily and posts updates on its website regularly to reach as many students and faculty members as possible.

U of T also maintains the Ministry of Labour has visited the site three times and has not issued any orders or recommended any further measures, other than those already being undertaken to ensure the safety of those in the building. 

The ministry's investigation is ongoing.