Asbestos Found In House's Building Materials

Asbestos found in Harvard building materials recently forced at least one undergraduate to temporarily relocate out of his room in Winthrop House, although administrators say current levels of the fibrous material pose no health problems to students.

Last semester, after arriving back to his dorm, Winthrop resident Matthew W.G. Walker ’16 said he noticed a chunk of plaster had fallen from the ceiling into his closet, scattering dust over his clothes. The next day, Winthrop House staff and facility workers tested the plaster and found levels of asbestos in the material, according to Walker.

Winthrop House Masters Stephanie Robinson and Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. wrote in a statement that standards of construction for older buildings are to blame for the presence of asbestos, which was frequently used for fireproofing and insulation throughout the twentieth century.

“Asbestos has been found in rooms at Winthrop House, either during repair work or during episodes where something breaks and materials behind the wall are exposed,” they wrote, adding that no students or staff members in the House are exposed to asbestos in ways that would break building codes.

Zachary M. Gingo, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Senior Director of Facilities Operations, said unless asbestos is made “friable," or into a powder, the substance is not dangerous.

“In order to make sure that that does not happen on campus, we have specific maintenance protocols for avoiding the damage or disturbance of potentially asbestos-containing materials,” Gingo wrote in an email.

He added that Harvard hires “third-party experts” to remove asbestos—a known carcinogen—and follows strict safety standards to ensure that no contaminants remain exposed.

For Walker, the asbestos posed more of an annoyance than a health threat: he threw away all of his belongings and clothing in the closet—some of which Walker said had sentimental value—and moved to another location for a brief time.

“At first I was really disappointed that Winthrop wouldn’t have notified us [of the asbestos],” he said.

Although Walker said Winthrop staff repaired the closet and ensured other rooms in his suite were asbestos-free, he said disposing of his belongings was “a big mess.”

Walker said the incident demonstrated that the more than century year-old house is in need of renovations. Winthrop is set to be renewed during the 2016-2017 academic year; Gingo wrote that workers remove all asbestos “that could be disturbed” during renovations.

—Staff writer Jalin P. Cunningham can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @JalinCunningham.