Asbestos on Campus

  Broken down and discolored pipes in a Dudley Lawrence dorm room. Photo credit: Andrea Cantor

Broken down and discolored pipes in a Dudley Lawrence dorm room. Photo credit: Andrea Cantor

SLC students undergo a good deal of stress, affected by everything from conference papers to extra-curricular commitments. Sometimes, the saving grace is getting some sleep, even if it’s a quick catnap breaking up an all-nighter. But what if where we sleep is making us sick?

Several Sarah Lawrence operations workers, who wished to remain anonymous, discussed their long battle over getting the school to survey the possibility of asbestos on campus.

They affirmed that asbestos was specifically brought up during the labor negotiations last year (which finally ended with a union contract this past summer), and said they felt the need to raise the issue because “it is a safety hazard.” One worker reflected, “We were around it in the boiler rooms and stuff and we wanted it removed. They told us that there was no asbestos on campus and we told the lawyer that was B.S.”

According to, Beth Ditkoff, a biology professor at Sarah Lawrence, asbestos has the potential to pose a real threat to our health and safety. 

She explained, “Asbestos is a natural mineral product, which was used in the past in various construction materials such as insulation. Long-term exposure to asbestos can cause a serious lung condition called asbestosis—chronic scarring in the lungs leading to shortness of breath, cough and heart disease. The asbestos can also damage the lining around the lung leading to fluid buildup, difficulty breathing and intense pain.”

Air circulation was a major concern of the operations workers interviewed. “There are air handling units that we have to go in and turn valves and there is asbestos right near the valve and now its getting sucked up into the units and being blown out throughout the building,” one worker explained. He went further to say one of the rooms in the Performing Arts Center in fact had the issue of asbestos spreading through the air vents. Once the situation was recognized, the school had the asbestos removed from that designated room, but the worker clarified that this was only one room out of many that may have a similar issue.

Prior to winning their union contract, workers felt compelled to work in places they believed to be riddled with asbestos, because otherwise they would face possible dismissal. One worker explained the situation, “Before they could say ‘you’re not going to do your job? Fine then you’re fired’. At least now we can say no, or not be afraid to say no.”

Asbestos is not the only issue with Sarah Lawrence’s facilities. Victoria Mycue (’20) quoted Victoria Ford, a member of the board of trustees, in an October 2016 Phoenix article, “Meet the Couple who Funded the Gilbert/OSilas Renovations,” saying that most of the buildings on campus are at least thirty years behind code. The reason that asbestos is so concerning, apart from the other facility issues, is that in the mid-1900s, asbestos was a prevalent substance used in building homes until its eventual decline in the United States after the Clean Air Act of 1970. This time period is when many of Sarah Lawrence’s building were being built or renovated. It is not illegal to have asbestos containing material as long as it is not frayed, cut or damaged. But one of the workers said due to the amount of work they do near asbestos, “[I] can’t see how you can’t disturb it.”

Maureen Gallagher, the assistant vice president for facilities, denied the reports of harmful asbestos. “There is not an asbestos problem on campus.  Do we have asbestos containing materials (ACM) on campus? Yes. As you know the campus is 90 years old with many buildings having been built in the early to mid-1900’s,” she said. Paradoxically, she explained, there are situations when it is better for public safety not to remove asbestos. She said, “Having ACM in buildings when it’s not damaged or disturbed poses no risk for the occupants of the building and the well-being of all within in our community is one of the highest priorities of the College.” She added, “In many instances it is safer not to remove asbestos if the area in which it is contained is in good, sound condition.”

The workers do not seem to agree that the school’s main priority is safety. Rather, they believe money is doing most of the talking and leading administration to deny an asbestos issue. 

One worker said, “The whole thing came up when we were fighting to get the union here. They were saying that they are going to make [us] wear uniforms and we said ‘okay, no problem, we’ll wear uniforms.’ Then the union turns around and says ‘now you have to pay to clean those uniforms.’ The college asks ‘why’ and they said because [the workers] touch chemicals and asbestos, and the school says, ‘there’s no asbestos on campus.’ Everybody else in the room was like ‘yes there is.’”

This is not the first time that The Phoenix has covered asbestos on campus. In a 2012 Phoenix article titled, “Students grow frustrated with poor facilities management,” asbestos was cited as a major concern.

In that article, Mitchell Sutherland (’14) wrote about Dudley Lawrence and how the building was constructed at the height of ACM usage. He explained, “When buildings like Dudley Lawrence decay, becoming an epicenter of peeling paint and leaky pipes, the asbestos deteriorates. When this occurs, asbestos fibers tend to come lose and spread throughout the air. If inhaled, the fibers can cause mesothelioma, a cancer that grows on the lining of the lungs.”  In the article, Sutherland mentions 1984 as the last recorded time of asbestos removal.

In the 2012 article, Sutherland wrote that Gallagher said that the institution receives federal funding and thus does procedural surveys to stay up to code. In a recent correspondence with the Phoenix, Gallagher said, “Asbestos removal and air monitoring is done by licensed contractors.  Our maintenance employees do receive awareness training which helps them identify areas that may contain ACM so that we can bring in professionals to assess the situation, and if necessary, resolve the problem.”

The workers are at a consensus that whenever they have brought up asbestos, the school has “swept it under the rug.” The awareness training that the workers received started last year as a part of the labor negotiations. But one worker explained the inefficiencies of the training.      

He explained, “They actually skip through a lot of stuff. The school is paying them for their time. The guy said ‘well you don’t do this, this and this. So I won’t go over it.’ We had to stop him and say ‘yes, we do this, this and this.’”

There have been some recent improvements to asbestos on campus. Gallagher said early this semester that when Gilbert, now OSilas, was undergoing construction, asbestos was removed. The newly renovated laundry rooms were also checked for asbestos before their upgrades. The results led to some of the laundry rooms being cleaned for asbestos.

Gallagher added that there are two scheduled abatement projects for Westlands’ basement and Slonim in December/January and one more for sometime in 2017.  She added, “All of the work is contained in basements, boiler rooms and some storage rooms. I can also share the College is continuing its work with consultants to survey various parts of campus, especially basement and boiler room areas, which will allow the College to formally identify any additional necessary abatement projects.”

It is unclear whether these abatement projects are as a result of or in a preemptive response to the workers’ latest meeting with the administration and union leaders. The meeting was scheduled sometime in early November. Unfortunately, Gallagher was unable to reply in time to give a response about the meeting. In whatever case, thankfully the workers’ voices are being legitimized. Not only is the school starting asbestos surveys, but also it conceded and purchased protective equipment for the workers.

But, if these abatement projects are restricted to boilers and basements, are they overlooking possible asbestos in dorms, kitchens, classrooms, and offices? Workers are in more direct contact with contaminants, but if there is peeling on the walls, or cracks in floors, there is a possibility of disturbed asbestos in upper levels of buildings. One worker said that the New Dorms gives him the most concern. He recalled, “In RGT I have to climb on top of the boilers, stand on it, to switch the valves. Is it asbestos? I’m not sure, but I believe it is. It’s got to be tested.”

The procedure for asbestos is extremely costly. It requires two outside companies to come in so one can perform the tests, including air monitoring, while the other examines the first group. Is this why repeated concerns about asbestos have gone unheeded for so long?  It will be many years before one could survey the true damage asbestos has caused, since related health problems show up later in life. Youth are the most susceptible to long-term damage, because they are still in development. The cost may be high to survey and potentially close buildings due to asbestos. But can we put a price on the health of our workers, faculty and students?

As one worker summed the situation up, “You would think in this day in age and at this school, all of it would be removed.”

Andrea Cantor '17