The fluorescent light fixtures in the classrooms in 35-year-old Butte Hall, on the campus of Cal State Chico, are now starting to show their age. As such fixtures deteriorate, they start to buzz and flicker, not only making it difficult to read and write, but for some people, causing headaches and dizziness. It’s also just plain annoying. What is preventing maintenance workers from simply replacing the aging systems is the asbestos insulation used in the ceiling tiles when the building was constructed in the early 1970s. James Jessee, director of Academic Publications, Facilities and Database Operations, says that although the asbestos in the building is “contained,” disturbing it could “create a big problem.” According to Jessee, there have been plans to renovate Butte Hall for 15 years. However, the estimated cost of the project is in excess of $50 million. Because they use electricity differently from incandescent lights, fluorescent lights, which are illuminated by gas, require a “ballast” in order to regulate the current.
The useful lifespan of such ballasts is between five and ten years. In order to repair and replace the ballasts in Butte Hall, it will be necessary to access the spaces above the ceiling, which would require asbestos abatement in order to avoid creating a health hazard. According to a report by the California State Public Health Commission, such an abatement project for Butte Hall could cost anywhere from $5000 to $150,000, depending on how much asbestos was found. In the meantime, Joe Wills, director of Public Affairs at the university, assures people that the asbestos in Butte Hall poses no hazards as long as it is undisturbed. On that last point however, there is disagreement. Investigative journalist Michael Bowker, who has written extensively on asbestos issues, writes that the containment of asbestos with sealant is at best a “temporary fix”, and such spray-on asbestos insulation as were used in buildings (such as the W.R. Grace Corporation’s infamous Monokote) are likely to crumble and become friable in time. In his book Deadly Deception, he quotes Dr. Aubrey Miller of the EPA, who says: “The truth is, asbestos can go from being benign if sealed away to being terribly dangerous if it becomes friable and fibers escape…You can never forget about it.“