As University officials prepare to shut down Coffman Union for two years, construction workers will begin eradicating the building’s asbestos this week.
Once a staple of the construction industry and nicknamed “the miracle mineral,” asbestos is now known to cause cancer. So in a three-month, $1.2 million project, the hazardous material will be removed from Coffman Union.
In the first segment of the $50 million Coffman Union renovation, specialized workers in plastic suits will remove the natural, fibrous mineral, said Sean Gabor, Facilities Management’s asbestos project manager.
Asbestos was primarily used in piping insulation. For binding and sound insulation, asbestos was also used in Coffman’s floor tiles and ceiling basements.
Last week, construction workers began punching holes in the building’s walls with sledgehammers in search of asbestos.
University-contracted workers who specialize in asbestos removal encase affected areas in plastic bags and saturate the substance with water to ease removal.
They extract the hazardous material by putting their hands through gloves attached to the plastic bags and cutting the asbestos out. The plastic enclosures are used to prevent asbestos particles from escaping into the air.
As long as asbestos is untouched, it is harmless. But when touched, asbestos breaks down into smaller, nonbiodegradable particles. If those particles become airborne, they can present serious health concerns.
Airborne particles can become embedded in the lungs, increasing the risk of lung cancer. And since asbestos doesn’t dissolve, it can remain in the lungs for years. Asbestos has also been linked to an increase in gastro-intestinal cancer.
Another major asbestos health concern is asbestosis, an illness characterized by shortness of breath that can impair the respiratory system and is potentially fatal.
But Gabor, who has worked on several University asbestos projects, said the glove-bag method is a standard procedure making it easier to control a smaller area. “I think this is very safe,” Gabor said.
The asbestos removal begins as Coffman tenants are still moving out. Top-floor tenants moved out first, with lower-floor tenants scheduled to leave by the end of the month.
After Coffman is completely vacated, crews will close off sections of the building with plastic to prevent asbestos particles from escaping.
But these enclosures are not airtight. Fresh air is allowed into the enclosure while contaminated air is sucked out using vacuums that filter and collect harmful particles.
To ensure safety, the University Department of Environmental Health and Safety will monitor air quality inside and outside of these enclosures. They will shut down the project if outside asbestos levels get too high.
In contrast to the Coffman project, the University usually encloses asbestos in a durable plastic covering and lets it rest. But the Coffman renovation will be so extensive that it is cheaper to remove the material than to contain it.
A special team of University asbestos workers are on hand for small projects and emergency situations.
“We are like an asbestos Swat Team,” said John Sundsmo, asbestos removal supervisor for Facilities Management.
But Sundsmo said emergencies have declined in recent years as workers have been more careful in buildings containing asbestos.
Nathan Whalen covers construction and facilities and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3237.