Students blind to toxic threat

by Leonardo Castaneda

MCT Campus
MCT Campus

What scares you the most about school? Grades? Finding the right internship? Maybe talking to the girl who sits next to you every day? Whatever your fears, asbestos exposure is probably not one of them. But should it be? Every year San Diego State’s Environmental Health and Safety Department releases a notification listing the buildings on SDSU’s campus that contain asbestos. The list includes more than 40 buildings, from East and West Commons to Love Library. Asbestos in those buildings can be found in materials such as pipe insulation, floor tiles and roofing.

Before you reach for that gas mask you’ve been saving for this year’s impending apocalypse, read this: Your chances of being exposed to asbestos, let alone getting sick from it, are probably extremely small. Asbestos is a nifty mineral compound that was all the rage during most of the 20th century, because it’s inexpensive yet strong and surprisingly resistant to fire and electricity. It’s so prevalent that any building in the U.S. constructed prior to 1979 is usually assumed to contain asbestos unless proven otherwise. Eventually, we realized exposure to airborne asbestos fibers in high enough quantities leads to grisly diseases, including malignant lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Rest assured, asbestos in SDSU currently poses no threat to your life and there is a team of trained professionals on campus making sure it stays that way.

The problem isn’t the imminent threat of asbestos exposure. The problem is that, if you’re like me, you had no idea there even was asbestos on campus, let alone in more than 40 buildings we use every single day. SDSU has a responsibility to proactively inform students of the existence of asbestos on campus and of what is being done to minimize the risk of exposure.

The asbestos notification released annually by EHS is distributed to all school employees in compliance with California Health and Safety Code Section 25915. This rule requires the owners of buildings with asbestos-containing materials to inform all their employees of the presence of asbestos in the building. This common sense requirement recognizes employees have a right to know of any potential health risks associated with a particular building.

An added bonus is that it makes all employees part of a constant monitoring system. If employees, for example, know roofing material in a certain building contains asbestos, and they see a broken ceiling tile on the floor, they know to avoid disturbing the tile and to contact the health department to deal with the issue before there’s any risk of exposure.

It makes sense for faculty and staff to be informed annually of the existence of asbestos at SDSU, but it makes even more sense for students to be informed. With more than 30,000 students at SDSU, we are by far the likeliest group to notice a situation in which asbestos could be exposed. More importantly, every year we spend countless hours in buildings throughout SDSU, completely unaware of the existence of asbestos all around us. No matter how small the risk is, we have a right to know of that risk. And we have a right to know how we are being protected from that risk. The odds of dying in a plane crash are extremely small, but its passengers still have a right to know where the emergency exits are.

Clearly, SDSU has a responsibility to inform students about asbestos on campus. The question is how big that responsibility is. After all, this information is freely available online. The notification is posted every year by EHS on its site, which is in the Division of Business and Financial Affairs website. But unless you frequently navigate SDSU’s administrative websites, or your Google searches tend to look like: “SDSU + (insert toxic compound)” you probably had no idea about asbestos on campus. The school needs to do much more to reach out to students and educate them about asbestos on campus. This can easily be done at no cost to the school.

First, incoming students should be informed of the existence of asbestos on campus and given an overview of how to identify and treat a situation in which asbestos might be exposed. A short presentation could easily be incorporated into traditional orientation activities. Annual follow-ups, including EHS’s notifications, can be distributed to students by email and social media.

The effort needed to inform students is minimal. But having a student body that is fully aware of the campus they live and learn at is invaluable.