The truth about the asbestos

Dear Editor:

There has been a large amount of hyperbole from a very small number of people regarding asbestos during an excavation project at Stevens Institute of Technology. As Stevens’ Vice President of Facilities, I’d like to offer my observations on the matter.

In letters to the media, local activist Ron Hine has accused us of “not alerting the public to the danger.” “Asbestos,” as Hine knows, is a scare word, like “fire” in a theater. We had to balance our concern with irresponsibly causing alarm against our concern for the public’s health. Stevens did not yell “asbestos” when we began blasting because, by any and all guidelines we could find, there was and is no danger to anyone.

When we began excavation of the site, we certainly knew that the rock we had to dislodge had the potential to have varying trace amounts of asbestos in it. That’s the nature of serpentine rock (which is only one of several kinds of rock being excavated at the site, the other kinds of rock do not have potential to have asbestos). We also knew that there were no laws or regulations with regards to amounts of asbestos that may be made airborne at an excavation such as ours, nor are there accepted procedures for controlling it. For that reason, we adopted tolerance guidelines suggested by the EPA after the World Trade Center disaster last year. (Half of the WTC contained asbestos fireproofing, which was banned by law partway through its construction.) The EPA’s guideline for the WTC area, which we followed, is quite stringent, and the EPA clearly states that even a short-term violation of this guideline does not in and of itself constitute a health hazard. This guideline is not law, but voluntary.

We have read Hine’s assertions that “no level of asbestos can be considered safe.” This is a statement we find very irresponsible, because it omits the simple fact that a certain ambient level of asbestos is a constant fact of life in urban areas. (I would surmise the ambient level is considerably higher in Hoboken today than it was year ago today, due to the WTC’s destruction, but there have been no calls even from the most fervent environmentalists to evacuate the NYC area!)

It’s difficult to adequately address every allegation Hine has made, which may be why he makes them; he seems to want us to waste resources chasing down spurious claims as if we were herding cats. When he says “dust spewed high into the air,” for example, it carries an emotional charge. Hine wants to paint a picture of a cloud settling into every corner of the city, entirely made up of a famously toxic substance. In fact only an extremely minuscule percentage of the dust has been asbestos. The public, which only wants to know what is really happening, is the real loser when hyperbole like this is presented as “fact.”

The worst one-time level our air quality monitor recorded was lower than the ambient (background) asbestos level typically present in schools. There was an error made on one occasion by our monitoring service (which is noted in the letter from said service, enclosed for your benefit should you wish to pass this information along to your readers.)

Regarding watering after the one reading that went above our self-imposed guideline: We stopped blasting the rock when we were no longer allowed to water (due to drought), then resumed when we were granted a variance. (Our experience in watering the site helped us develop an expertise such that, eventually, even dust was not getting far into the air.) Far from being clandestine, even before the public’s concern was brought to our attention we instituted announcements about blasting. We have also invited the local media to come and observe the excavation and our measuring and containment procedures.

Our excavation will be finished in a few days (it may even be done when you read this). If you have further questions, please do not hesitate to contact my office. We apologize if you were alarmed by anything you might have read about this matter, and assure you that there was no need for concern.

Roger Cole
Vice President, Facilities and Support Services
Stevens Institute of Technology


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