Scott Rogers, a certified industrial hygienist working on behalf of the University of Montana, said test instruments did not detect asbestos in the air of McGill Hall, and the building is safe for workers.
"The samples we've taken don't demonstrate that normal activity in the building contributes to an airborne hazard," Rogers said.
McGill was built in 1953, and the air will have asbestos, albeit at a level that's less than the detectable 0.002 fibers per cubic centimeter, Rogers said; he said the threshold for asbestos to have an impact is 0.1 fiber per unit over eight hours.
Rogers said UM will do a deep clean of the structure, but he considers the building occupationally safe.
The news Thursday at an informational meeting about the status of McGill led to a smattering of applause and an audible "thank you." Since last Thursday, faculty, students and staff have been closed out of offices and classrooms and in some cases separated from multimedia equipment necessary for school projects.
But the presentation — and discussion by another consultant of other places asbestos is present, such as car brakes — didn't allay concerns of parents whose children attended a preschool relocated from McGill last Tuesday after surface tests showed "unacceptable levels" of asbestos.
One test from the preschool showed 400,000 fibers per square centimeter; UM officials have said a federal cleanup threshold is 5,000 fibers per unit, but there is no correlation between wipe samples and health.
Lauren Kelso Hanna worked in the McGill basement, "not the cleanest place," and brought her baby to work, where he rolled and crawled on the floor.
"Anyone who has a toddler knows that they put everything in their mouth," Hanna said, through tears. "What is the risk (of ingestion)? What did I expose my son to?"
Replied another parent, "You didn't. The university did."
Added a third, "And it's cancer."
At least a couple of parents wanted to hear from UM officials directly, not the consultants the campus brought to provide expertise. At the meeting, Lew Pro asked why families had not heard directly from UM President Seth Bodnar.
Bodnar attended a later meeting Thursday with parents.
UM officials shuttered McGill Hall last week after surface tests showed high levels of asbestos, and at least one industrial hygienist expressed surprise at how high the highest asbestos counts reached. But UM also has noted that regulatory standards don't exist for surface contamination, just air contamination.
Asbestos can become loose and airborne, and when it settles in people's lungs, it can cause asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma, sometimes 10 to 40 years after exposure.
Rogers said a child who ingests asbestos rather than breathes it has still been exposed to the substance. Since that exposure isn't from inhalation, he said it is minimal, but he suggested sharing the information with a pediatrician so it is documented in the child's chart. Mucous can wash the material through a toddler, but he said if fibers lodge in the digestive tract, they can create a lesion.
He also said the occupational threshold for asbestos in air applies to adults, but children's respiratory systems are still developing and don't have the same defenses. Rogers said he would provide additional information for parents at a separate meeting the same afternoon, but UM would be "aggressive" in areas that would have children.
Generally, he said UM will conduct a cleanup in the building, and he anticipated it would take five to seven days. Although Rogers said he considers UM safe to occupy, UM officials did not immediately confirm a target date to begin cleanup or say whether they planned to reopen McGill before the end of the semester.
Although President Bodnar did not appear at the meeting, communications director Paula Short shared the directives he had given the team working on the problems. She said Bodnar instructed them to make health and safety their top priority; proceed proactively and err on the side of safety; and be transparent and frequent with communication.
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UM has been posting test results and other information here: umt.edu/facilities/asbestos/default.php.
At this meeting and others, UM officials stressed that asbestos is present in old buildings, such as McGill, is in new construction and people can be exposed to it in their homes.
Thursday, parents tried to redirect the focus of the discussion to the situation at the preschool, noting, for example, that a table brought from the old location to the new preschool showed surface levels of asbestos higher than the cleanup threshold.
Rogers noted the fibers were likely deep in the wood and unlikely to become an airborne hazard, but he also noted the table would be cleaned. Facilities Services Director Kevin Krebsbach also said other structures in Missoula will have asbestos.
"You're sending your kids to public schools without the same scrutiny," Krebsbach said.
At the meeting, participants asked more questions of UM and made requests for future management.
One person in the audience said the standards for measuring adverse health effects appear based on healthy adults and children: "What about those individuals, those children, students and employees, who already have asthma and other concerns with their lung function? Who do not have healthy lungs?"
Rogers said the situation will depend on the individual, and unhealthy lungs will be less able to battle any particulate, including asbestos. The types of asbestos in McGill are chrysotile and amosite.
Some parents also noted UM previously had committed to adhering to a management protocol for asbestos, but the plan appeared to have changed. UM officials have said they do not do routine building inspections, but technicians are trained to identify asbestos and report it when they see it on other calls.
Madison Mock, a student, said she was disappointed UM decided it wasn't cost effective to continue asbestos checks years ago. Instead of reaching out to hired professionals once crumbly asbestos is discovered, she requested UM inspect on a routine basis.
"There should be some sort of periodic management moving forward," Mock said.
Allen Harguess, another student, wanted to know how long it would take for a surface to accumulate 400,000 fibers per square centimeter, and Rogers said seven to 10 years.
"Where has this program that is supposed to have been in effect been?" Harguess said.
Krebsbach said UM is going to adopt a program of regular inspections that is similar to one required by kindergarten through high schools. He said UM earlier changed its approach to become more affordable. Going forward, Rogers noted the entire university system would be making advances based on the situation in McGill.
Last week at one of the public meetings, Short and Krebsbach apologized to parents about the situation. Thursday, some parents demanded a formal apology in writing from the university rather than a campus communication that repeatedly insists UM is being "proactive."
Short said she apologized and would continue to do so. She said UM was being agile in its decision-making, making the best choices possible with data it had along the way, and bringing in a cadre of experts since the daycare relocation and temporary building closure last week.
"I think what you're seeing is this evolution of our own learning and understanding about this process," Short said.
Pro said asbestos has been banned in other countries and is a danger brought to light in Montana in Libby. He said UM should have shut down the building sooner or at least alerted preschool parents that a remediation was taking place in December after a technician noticed loose asbestos in an air system.
"Your university learning curve is a tough lesson for all these children, faculty, students who have been exposed to this," Pro said.