As the nation's public libraries age, they - like schools - face updates that result in closures, often because older buildings like schools and libraries contain significant amounts of asbestos that represent a threat to public health.
Asbestos, a fibrous mineral widely used in insulation, floor and roofing tiles, tile glues, and some ceiling panels up to the 1970s, when U.S. health officials began to recognize its dangers, is the most common cause of certain illnesses, namely asbestosis - a severe, debilitating respiratory disease - lung and digestive system cancers, and mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is a particularly lethal form of cancer that commonly lies dormant for several decades before producing enough symptoms to allow for diagnosis. When finally diagnosed, however, most patients are given about a year to live. Fewer than 10 percent live five years, even with second generation chemotherapy agents like Alimta, combination therapies, and radical surgery to remove tumors.
The Wilson Library in Bellingham, Washington - which was closed for asbestos remediation and remodeling recently - was reopened and then closed again from approximately 8:45 a.m. to 9:25 a.m, Pacific time, Friday morning due to an error in the ventilation system's automatic programming. The remediation and remodeling was scheduled to be completed on Thursday, and the ventilation system automatically set to run again on Friday morning.
Unfortunately, the project was not completed on time, but the ventilation system went on again regardless.
Students and library employees were evacuated as soon as the error was realized, about 8:45, and allowed to return about an hour later, after air quality tests were conducted to insure that the library's air was free of asbestos particles.
The Wilson Library, as part of Western Washington University (WWU), falls under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPAs) Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) guidelines in terms of asbestos management, so students, faculty and staff were sent e-mails informing them of the nature of the event and the reasons behind the closure and re-opening.
AHERA guidelines mandate that all schools, whether public private or denominational, inspect for asbestos; create an asbestos hazard plan; provide yearly information on asbestos hazards and the plan; inform of any abatement actions that take place (or are planned); designate a contact/liaison person to manage the asbestos plan; and provide custodial staff with asbestos-awareness training.
Western Washington University's Director of Environmental Health and Safety, Gayle Shipley, and WWU staff acted in accordance with the university's AHERA planning by advising of the action taken; i.e., the 8:45 closure, but clearly one step in the process was missed or the ventilation system would not have come back on when it did, and this may be why the EPA strongly recommends its six-step plan to insure that at least one individual is cognizant of all phases of asbestos remediation, monitoring and information dissemination.
That more libraries, both public and collegiate, will face asbestos remediation of some kind in the near future is a given. In Minnesota, the Waseca Public Library is getting ready to close from July 30 to August 23 to enable workers to remove old asbestos tiles and replace them with carpeting. And in Minneapolis, the historic Southeast Library - designed by renowned Minnesota modernist architect Ralph Rapson in 1964 - was closed in 2006 as part of budget reorganization but now faces reopening thanks to the Minneapolis/Hennepin County Library systems merger.
Southeast Library will admittedly need asbestos abatement and a new roof, but its demolition (which was discouraged by historians who appealed to the City of Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission and the City Council to designate the building as an historic landmark) has been avoided.
According to one study, it is as costly and time-consuming to demolish a building with asbestos and remove the debris to an approved landfill as it is to perform asbestos remediation and return the structure to use. This is primarily because asbestos abatement has to take place even where demolition is planned, and because hazardous waste landfills are becoming increasingly crowded, leading to higher and higher costs for dumping asbestos debris.
In fact, the real cost of restoring, reusing and re-purposing older buildings lies in renovation and retrofitting, not in asbestos remediation.