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Abating asbestos’ threat: UND assures public that material’s handling is safe

Lincoln, Neb. resident Jimmy Younic and other asbestos workers wrap the walls and columns of the Law School at UND with plastic in preparation to clean out the asbestos lined walls that were originally built in the early 1900's. The building renovation project was recently approved by the North Dakota Legislature. (Luke Franke/ Grand Forks Herald)

A lopsided dark brown rock about the size of a grapefruit sits harmlessly on a shelf in Larry Zitzow’s office in the Facilities Management building at UND.

Zitzow, the director of that department, doesn’t give the stone a second glance.

“If it’s kept in this state, just like any rock, it isn’t going to hurt you,” he said, holding the asbestos.

Asbestos is actually a grouping of minerals mined from the earth that World War II shipyard workers discovered was extremely effective at fireproofing, insulating and binding materials together. It was commonly used in everything from floor tiles to brake lines in cars until the ‘70s.

It was used in public buildings like some on campus at UND, where workers are doing asbestos abatement for building renovations.

When workers who had been exposed to asbestos began getting sick in the ‘50s, doctors learned that when the rock is disturbed or broken, asbestos can become a health hazard.

“Just because it’s in the building doesn’t mean it’s a problem,” Zitzow said. “It’s once it’s disturbed, becomes airborne, because the fibers in this material can be ground so small that you can’t see them and those are the ones you can inhale and they get into your lungs.”

Don’t hold your breath

The Law School and Wilkerson Hall at UND are both in the early stages of renovation projects that involve the removal of asbestos.

This process involves trained professionals sealing off areas of the building where the material, which was mostly used as pipe insulation at UND, is being removed. The workers wear airtight suits with filters to keep from breathing the asbestos and use a fan to blow stale air out of the area.

And it’s the fan that always draws peoples’ attention, Zitzow said.

But the fan has a system of three filters that keep the asbestos fibers trapped inside. Zitzow, who taught asbestos abatement at UND for more than a decade, said breathing the air the fan blows out is perfectly safe.

In the ‘70s, the government began enacting safety regulations on asbestos, including checking the product’s levels at public schools.

This didn’t include higher education institutions though, so Zitzow said many, including UND, began doing their own examinations.

If asbestos is too damaged or disrupted, workers can either remove it, like they’re doing at the Law School and Wilkerson Hall, or repair it by getting it wet and coating it with a sealant. The asbestos is then taken to the local landfill where it is immediately covered with six inches of dirt to keep it contained.

“UND is not asbestos-free yet,” Zitzow said. “We're working toward it.”

Today’s asbestos

Asbestos can get chipped and damaged with any metal device, like a hammer. Any blow to the material makes tiny asbestos particles that can be inhaled and cause variety of illnesses that can lie dormant for decades.

Doctor Fatima Khan specializes in allergy and immunology at Altru and said she asks patients who have trouble breathing about any current and past occupations to gauge asbestos exposure.

“It’s not seen as often now because there’s more awareness of asbestos and its health risks,” she said. “There is a lot of safety and monitoring equipment.”

Kahn said asbestos particles scar lung tissue and affect a person’s ability to properly process oxygen. Some diseases are simply treated by removing a patient from exposure to asbestos but serious diseases, including various kinds of lung cancer, like mesothelioma, can be fatal.

Zitzow said that even with everything that is known about the dangers of asbestos, foreign countries including Canada still put it in products like chalkboards because no other substance is as good of a binding and fireproofing agent as asbestos is.

“They’re still mining it, still selling it and still putting products out that have the material in it,” he said.

Zitzow said his department watches for the materials that go into construction projects at UND to make sure they don’t contain asbestos, but there’s no way to know for sure until the materials are tested.

Those concerned about asbestos exposure at their place of work can find more information at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration website,

Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.

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