Editors Note: A previous version of this article attributed Tori Cárdenas to saying that whoever is in charge of making the notification must be well versed in the seriousness of asbestos contamination. This was actually said by Celeste Monforton. The change to the article was made Nov. 21 at 11:22 a.m.
The Humanities Building, in between the Student Union Building and Ortega Hall and commanding a view of Smith Plaza, is sometimes overlooked. However, an asbestos alert sent out via email gave some students pause and raised questions about transparency and the safety of the building.
At around 3 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 14, English graduate students received an email notifying them that an asbestos abatement team would begin working on the second floor of the building the following day.
In the email, Sandy Rodrigue, a department administrator for English Language and Literature, said it was confirmed that "there is asbestos in the drywall" and the drywall would need abatement before the previously planned hallway construction could start.
Rodrigue said the asbestos abatement was scheduled to be done over fall break when "fewer people (were) around," but the University of New Mexico Planning, Design and Construction (PDC) didn't make a timeline, pushing the abatement back to Nov. 15 instead.
"While we asked for the work to be done in a manner that will cause as little disruption as possible to our areas, we have learned that the abatement work will include the use of potentially noisy fans," wrote Rodrigue.
Institutional Support Services spokeswoman Sarah Scott said the pre-planned painting, re-flooring and drinking fountain replacement is on track to be completed over this winter break.
"Abatement work was scheduled in coordination with the department chair, department administrator, department front desk, the UNM Facilities Management area supervisor for the Humanities Building and the master building plumber," Scott said. "PDC gave everyone the verbal heads-up over the phone that this work needed to be performed and then followed up via email with the written confirmation once the work was scheduled."
The CDC states that asbestos is the commercial name given to a variety of six different fibrous minerals that were once commonly used in products such as wallboard and insulation.
Celeste Monforton testified earlier this year before Congress on behalf of the American Public Health Association in favor of the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2019. She explained in an interview with the Daily Lobo that asbestos is a slow-acting agent that causes a number of illnesses, including mesothelioma and asbestosis.
"We know that (asbestos) is a carcinogen. It doesn’t take but one fiber to cause cancer," Monforton said.
Monforton, who holds a doctorate in public health from George Washington University, explained that asbestos exposure is extremely serious and communication about this risk must be done in a transparent and thoughtful manner.
"I don’t know if it would be considered effective to send (notice) out just one day ahead of time, because you are not going to give people enough time to even see (the notice) or ask questions. I imagine people who didn’t see the message and then ended up going into the building and seeing the signage might be alarmed," said Monforton.
Tori Cárdenas, an English teaching assistant and graduate student, said the way the University handled the situation is "frustrating."
"Just not knowing, or not having anyone really care to let you know that there’s this dangerous stuff around (is disappointing)," Cárdenas said.
Cárdenas went on to state that other buildings are being replaced or renovated, such as Physics and Astronomy and recreational services, and therefore the University does have the funds needed to fix the problems in Humanities.
"I knew the University didn’t care about (the Humanities), but it’s just another nail in the coffin," Cárdenas said. "We’re already getting paid so little, and we just unionized and we’re just starting to break the ice on this stuff, and something new happens, so I’m scared."
Monforton said environmental service firms that do asbestos abatement typically email a notice 30 days in advance (with a return receipt requested) and post "signage 3-5 days in advance of the job — sometimes posted in a breakroom, on bulletin board, near water fountain, doorway, etc. — to give people a heads-up."
Monforton also noted that whoever is in charge of making the notification must be well versed in the seriousness of asbestos contamination and should be especially sensitive to the potential alarm the notice may cause.
Cárdenas questioned how long UNM has known about the asbestos because a new water fountain had been placed on the fifth floor of the Humanities Building some years prior.
"(The water fountain has) been there for at least four or five years, so if someone had known, we could’ve known a lot sooner. So, just communication, transparency — there’s none of it," Cárdenas said.
Asbestos kills approximately 89 people in New Mexico and up to 15,000 people in the United States each year, according to the advocacy campaign Asbestos Nation.
Knowing the severity of asbestos only adds more consternation, according to Cárdenas.
"We barely get paid, we’re barely getting our insurance covered, there’s no real consideration for our quality of life anyway — but (it feels like) they care so little about our quality of life in the future," Cárdenas said.
Alyssa Martinez is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @amart4447
Lissa Knudsen is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @lissaknudsen