Dining Hall in Winthrop House
Last week, we learned that asbestos has been found in the building material of Winthrop. This has created quite the uproar, because asbestos is a harmful material, with the potential to cause diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. The administration has claimed that the current levels of asbestos in Winthrop do not pose health problems to students, but people are still, understandably, worried. Should we be worried about the asbestos problem, or is it not a big deal after all?

Flyby has done our research. According to the Senior Director of Facilities Operations, asbestos is most dangerous when it is friable. But what does that even mean? The term “friable” means that the asbestos is easily crumbled by hand, releasing fibers into the air. These fibers are what we should be worried about. The body can’t break them down once they are lodged in lung or body tissues, so they remain there and potentially cause disease—not a very pleasant thought.

The good news is that most building materials that contain asbestos won’t actually release asbestos fibers. The downside is that they will release fibers if they are disturbed or damaged in some way—if an asbestos ceiling tile is drilled or broken, for example. Fortunately, most of us students don’t do much drilling into our ceilings. So does that mean we’re safe?

Not exactly. Drilling is not the only way fibers can get released from asbestos materials. Even things like water damage, continual vibration, aging, and physical impact can break the materials down and make fiber release more likely. That’s slightly more worrying. Does water damage include spilling water (or other liquids) on the floors and walls? Does “continual vibration” entail the extracurricular activity your roommate and her boyfriend sometimes participate in? Should we be worried?

The answer is probably not. At the end of the day, the administration and building experts understand this situation a lot better than we at Flyby do, so we encourage Winthrop residents to trust that Harvard would not let its students live in a toxic environment. Asbestos is used in almost every public and commercial building constructed before the 1980s, and I think we can believe the administration when they say that the current levels of asbestos in Winthrop are not dangerous.

All the same, we are sympathetic to the students’ plight. It’s not fun knowing you’re exposed to just barely-acceptable levels of a carcinogenic toxin, and it sucks that you had to find out from a Crimson article rather than from the administration directly. Maybe this unfortunate incident will encourage the administration to be more transparent about things like this? We can only hope.