Safety Precautions for Asbestos Taken at MCZ

Harvard is currently taking precautionary measures in its Museum of Comparitive Zoology to reduce hazards--including lung diseases and cancer--caused by asbestos used in the building's construction.

University officials have ordered that asbestos used in some display cases in the museum be covered with special paint that guards against the effects of asbestos, officials said recently.

Louis J. Diberadinis, industrial hygenist for University Health Services, said the precautionary measures began last fall. They are expected to continue for at least the next several weeks until completion of the project.

Peter G. Williamson, assistant professor of Geology, initiated the special measures when he "opened up the cabinets and realized they were asbestos and that they were potentially dangerous," according to one MCZ source.

The source, MCZ researcher Norman Gilinsky, said that "people are painfully aware that it [asbestos] is around" the museum.

The precautionary renovations at the museum are centered mainly around its paleontology section on the building's first floor.

Williamson refused to discuss the specifics of the project. But Gilinsky said that asbestos was discovered in the office of one professor, not Williamson, and "immediately removed."

Diberadinis, who handles all matters of environmental health and safety for Harvard, said that he has been conducting air samples at the museum for the last several months. He said he found no hazardous levels of asbestos but nevertheless recommended renovating the display cabinets "as an added precaution."

Installation and use of asbestos was banned by the federal government in 1973, when researchers concluded that it increased the risk of cancer and other lung diseases.

Paul Heffeman, a local spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency, said that while the federal government mandates special guidelines for public schools and other public buildings, the use of asbestos was left "to be handled by universities themselves."

Asbestos was used throughout buildings owned by the University, mainly as insulation for pipes. Much of it was installed during the 1930's when asbestos was considered a popular and inexpensive building material.

Officials said that asbestos is being renovated in various parts of the building on an ad hoc basis. The MCZ project is the only ongoing, major asbestos renovation prompted by individual complaints.

For example at Harvard's biological laboratories, building superintendent Brian Crilli said that "we are trying to remove it [asbestos] as we come across it. There are a lot of new materials now being used that aren't carcinogenic."

Crilli added, "There's not a push on having it removed [all at once] as it would mean shutting down half the University."

At the MCZ, display cabinets are being covered with a special paint that is designed to guard against effects of asbestos for about five years.

Several researchers there have expressed concern about the problem.

"I am certainly aware of my own office having much [asbestos] in it," said Kurt P. Wise, a researcher and teaching fellow, Wise explained that because only a small percentage of cabinets that were on display to the public contained asbestos, it was "only the researchers who end up getting affected" by the rest of the cabinets.

There are several types of asbestos used in building materials. The type used most commonly in Harvard buildings is among some of the less hazardous varieties, officials said.

In buildings that have recently undergone major construction, including Sever Hall and Lowell and Winthrop Houses, special precautions against asbestos were also installed, officials said.