As the country’s first public university, UNC faces challenges related to the decay of buildings that have stood for decades.
Asbestos signs at Mitchell Hall have not only revealed this deterioration, but also raised concern among some students and faculty who are concerned about the potential health risks.
Sarah Linville, a junior psychology student, said she has classes at Mitchell Hall for about an hour every day. When she saw a warning sign and thin plastic sheeting blocking off an area she walks by every day, she was immediately concerned.
“After the initial shock, I was like, ‘Why didn’t they tell us that?'” Linville said. “I was a little surprised and kinda disappointed that the university didn’t bother to share this with the students because it just seems like I want to know something.”
Asbestos is a general term used to describe a variety of naturally occurring minerals. However, most of what Linville knows about asbestos – like many non-experts – is that it can cause health problems, including lung cancer and mesothelioma.
The signs at Mitchell include cancer and lung disease warnings and the need for protective clothing when entering the cordoned off area.
According to the EHS website, 29 UNC buildings, including nine dormitories, require “extra precautions” due to materials containing asbestos on the walls or ceilings.
The website also says there may be more buildings with ceiling systems containing asbestos – full inspections of all of these buildings have not been carried out.
A university spokesman said the facilities are “safe” but is asking that people in affected buildings avoid scratching or damaging ceilings, walls or pipes and issue a work order for the facility before hanging items on the walls .
According to a statement by UNC Environment Executive Director, Health and Safety Cathy Brennan, the flooring in Room 008 of Mitchell Hall will be removed due to the presence of asbestos. The security measures taken by facility services to cordon off the space with plastic sheeting and put up asbestos signs outside are in line with correct work practices, the statement said.
Glenn Morrison is a professor in the UNC Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the Gillings School of Global Public Health and studies indoor air pollution. He said before the long-term health risks of asbestos were well known, the material was used in construction for its resistance to friction and heat.
But when asbestos is tampered with, it can become an air pollutant that’s easy to breathe in and can lead to health problems, he said.
“If you know a place has old floors with asbestos, which used to be pretty common because people walk on them, you might need to test to make sure it’s not becoming airborne,” Morrison said.
After lead was found in over 140 drinking water faucets on campus, Linville said she felt students were now more tired with similar problems.
When a picture of the Mitchell asbestos sign was posted to the popular anonymous Instagram account @uncquirks, reactions ranged from humor to concern.
Still, the university said it remains committed to the health and safety of all members of the community.
“One of UNC-Chapel Hill’s top priorities is the well-being and safety of its students, faculty, staff and visitors. The university takes appropriate measures to prevent asbestos-containing material (ACM) from crumbling and releasing fibers into the air and is therefore not considered a health risk,” Brennan said in the statement.
In addition, the university offers asbestos awareness training to inform anyone interested in learning more.
Linville said she hopes that in the future, UNC will make strides to better communicate with the community about similar issues, rather than letting students discover these issues by accident.
“I definitely think full transparency is important because I think if you want students to have confidence in the university, you have to be willing to communicate and let us know what’s going on,” Linville said.
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