University of Newcastle asbestos contamination still a concern

The threat of toxic asbestos continues to linger in one of the University of Newcastle’s oldest buildings. 

A mix of asbestos materials were used to construct the McMulliin building, one of the first erected on the Callaghan campus in 1965. 

The legacy has continued to haunt to university management ever since. 

Much of the hazard originated from asbestos insulation that was sprayed on the building’s slab ceilings. 

A major asbestos removal exercise was undertaken in the 1980s, however, further testing has shown that not all of the material was successfully removed. 

“Test results indicate that fragments of asbestos material remain present beneath the resprayed ceiling coating and in the junctions between the ceiling slab and the top-plate of internal walls,” a 2013 report says. 

A staff member raised the alarm after finding some grit-like deposited on a bookshelf in 2013. The material was later found to contain chrysotile asbestos fibres, which are thought to have dropped from the ceiling.  

Subsequent testing in another 41 rooms in the building resulted in another two positive tests. Air monitoring found the airborne samples were below safe limits.

Eighteen material samples that were suspected of containing asbestos were analysed during a field audit in 2015. Three of the samples taken from the McMullin Building and two from the adjoining McMullin Theatre were found to contain asbestos.  Window sealant, Vermiculite or a similar ceiliing coating, switchboard insulation and the soft lining on the building’s eaves were among the materials that tested positive. 

While some of the materials posed no threat, others had the potential to become airborne. 

“The remnant insulation ‘lagging’ type material to the pipes sampled in the plant room in the McMullin Theatre is considered to be “Friable” in form. Given the friable form of the material and the apparent attempt to remove the material previously...it is recommended the area be immediately isolated,” a 2015 Hazardous Substances Management Plan obtained by Fairfax Media under Freedom of Information laws shows. 

All asbestos was later removed from the plant room, and an Asbestos Clearance Certificate was issued at the completion of the project in November 2015. 

The university’s acting director of infrastructure and facility services Brian Jones said regular air monitoring conducted in and around the building indicated airborne asbestos levels were constantly below safe levels. 

“It’s particularly important when we do repairs,” he said. 

He said the McMullin Building posed management challenges that were typical of a building from the era.  

“The problem with any asbestos is that you are always going to have an element of residual risk. It’s important that we know where the asbestos is so we can deal with it in a proper way.” 

It is intended to relocate the building’s 250 staff and students to the $95million NewSpace building in Hunter St, Newcastle, which opens later this year.