McGill, News

Closure of asbestos-ridden Stewart Biology building disrupts teaching and research for weeks

Following the closure of the Stewart Biology Building on Feb. 6 after burst water pipes led to an exposure risk to asbestos, all classes and research in the building have been moved or cancelled. Students and professors have also grown frustrated from a lack of information and logistical challenges caring for lab animals and plants.   

In a statement about the closure to The McGill Tribune, McGill media relations officer Frédérique Mazerolle wrote that extreme temperatures caused the water pipes to burst in the North and South blocks of the building. The West wing was already closed for renovations. Per McGill’s Director (Campus Public Safety) Pierre Barbarie’s update, the water disrupted the asbestos and caused an exposure risk.

Mazerolle said the North block’s affected areas have undergone extensive cleaning and testing according to asbestos safety protocols, with the air tests clean of dangerous inhalable asbestos fibres so far. But testing after the clean-up found that traces of asbestos are still present, so further cleaning will be done in the next week. 

After the additional cleaning, McGill will perform more air tests and, pending clean results, the North block will re-open. Mazerolle noted that once the building opens, McGill will continue monitoring the situation with regular air testing. The South block remains closed for flood repairs.

“We will update the community as to test results and what is being done to fix the issue as soon as information becomes available,” Mazerolle wrote.

When the risk of exposure to asbestos extended the building’s closure on Feb. 8, access to labs became a pressing issue for many researchers. Professor Ehab Abouheif, who heads the Abouheif Lab, which studies ecological evolutionary developmental biology, told the Tribune that his lab was unable to continue research and care for their animals. 

“Our research has stopped cold,” Abouheif wrote in an email. “We also lost some research animals because we could not get in fast enough to feed, although McGill [Environment Health and Safety] was working around the clock to get us in, but nature does not wait.”

Mazerolle informed the Tribune that some “essential personnel for animal care” were allowed “into the building between Feb. 6 and the morning of Feb. 8, provided they were already fit-tested for and had respirator masks and P100 filters.” 

According to assistant professor of biology Fiona Soper, however, McGill staff were barred access on Feb. 6, and no one in her lab was able to access the building to feed their animals until two days later.

“We were not told not to come in until Monday morning at 8 a.m.” Soper wrote in an email to the Tribune. “We didn’t get a great deal more info […] except later on Monday, faculty were asked to supply a list of people who needed emergency access to keep study organisms alive [….] Those people (initially one per lab) could not gain entry until they’d been approved by a committee and fitted for respirators, which began on Wednesday.”

All classes and labs were moved elsewhere, online, or outright cancelled, frustrating the students and professors. Michael Hendricks, an associate professor of biology, is one such member of the McGill community.

“The only directive we were given was ‘move online or cancel class,’” Hendricks wrote to the Tribune. “No centralized attempt to arrange alternative classrooms has been made, which is strange given the fact that we have no idea how long the closure will be, and this affects so many students in so many departments. The uncertainty creates a lot of stress and anxiety around work and safety.”

Soper, who studies plant physiology and ecosystem nutrient cycling, noted that the closure has disrupted the Soper Lab’s time-sensitive research. 

“We have experiments running in the greenhouse and planned lab work that have both been affected [….] The photosynthesis measurements will have to be sacrificed,” Soper wrote. “My PhD student has some time-sensitive root samples (brought back from Costa Rica and irreplaceable) that need to be analyzed ASAP.”

The lab closures have also affected the future plans of some researchers. Maxine Wu, a master’s student who works at the Sarah Woolley lab, which researches songbird behaviour, noted in an email to the Tribune that her work has come to a halt due to the building closure, forcing her to postpone graduation.  

“Much of the research experiments we had planned for the past week and a half have now since been delayed since we [must] be in the lab to do them,” Wu wrote. “My plan was to graduate after this term but due to the closure I now have to extend into the summer term.”

In the two weeks since the building was shut, the university has released six public updates. Yet some, including Samantha Gorle, U3 Science and President of McGill’s Biology Student Union  (MBSU), told the Tribune that despite the university’s updates, there has been very little helpful information provided to students.

“Everyone’s a bit stressed about [the closure],” Gorle said. “Biology students weren’t sent anything additional [than the public updates]. We [MBSU] weren’t communicated with at all [….] I would have appreciated […] when an update came out, being handed it instead of needing to go find it.”

Gorle also told the Tribune that the closure impacted MBSU operations, preventing their team from using their lounge in the building as well as hosting in-person office hours for biology students. 

The closure of the building at short notice also caused delivery issues. According to Hendricks and assistant professor of biology Arnold Ludwig Hayer, the building was unable to accept deliveries, including those of live animals. Instead, couriers were redirected by security to deliver at the McIntyre Medical Building. But Hayer recalled that McIntyre would send deliveries to the unmanned loading dock—where packages cannot be left—so many were returned to the suppliers, including perishable items. 

“I was lucky to run into a motivated FedEx delivery person […] I offered to receive/sign for all FedEx packages with destination Stewart Biology,” Hayer wrote to the //Tribune//. “I have been keeping them in my office in the [Bellini Life Sciences Complex], contacting their recipients, and storing the contents of deliveries at appropriate temperatures when necessary [….] I have not been able to set up a similar arrangement with other courier services besides FedEx, so I am sure a lot of deliveries are still returned.”

The North block is now expected to reopen later this week, with the timeline for South block still unknown. Stewart Biology’s closure comes after three buildings closed last month at McGill’s Macdonald campus also due to an asbestos exposure risk. 

In his initial email, Director (Campus Public Safety) Barbarie explained that the university had known about the asbestos in Stewart Biology for years, as asbestos was used as an insulator in its initial construction.

McGill began renovating the building’s West block in 2017 to remove the asbestos and upgrade the wing to meet modern university standards as part of a project that received $33 million from the Canadian government. The renovation is now in year six. The North and South blocks, which were built at the same time as the West, however, continued to be used as research and teaching spaces. Hendricks says that asbestos is only one part of the building’s issues.

“There are frequent floods on the seventh and eighth floor of Stewart North, and they have never closed the building or tested for asbestos (that I know of) afterward,” Hendricks wrote. “Stewart has been a ticking time bomb for many years. I hope this isn’t a long-term problem…there is no backup plan.” 

McGill’s Annual Safety Report 2021-2022 stated that a plan to update the asbestos administrative policy will be rolled out in 2022-23, with the implementation of the policy being one of the three leadership and policy goals. 

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