Asbestos found in day care centre insulation

A city-owned and Wellington County-operated day care centre was evacuated this week after asbestos was discovered in the building’s insulation.

Stantec Consulting confirmed insulation at the Willowdale Child Care and Learning Centre (located on Willow Street) contained Libby Mine asbestos and on Tuesday county officials notified parents, evacuated about 50 children and staff members (to the nearby Family Gateway facility), and locked down the centre.

Only hazardous material personnel will be granted access to the building.

“We’re proceeding with all caution,” Warden Chris White told the Advertiser on Wednesday morning. “Our first priority is the health and safety of the children and staff at Willowdale.”

White explained the county also notified officials from Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health (WDGPH), the Ministry of Labour and the City of Guelph. He said county staff is meeting with city officials to discuss the next steps.

“At this point we’re not sure  how this is going to work,” the warden said.

Officials are conducting a second test at a different lab and also conducting follow-up tests at the Willowdale facility to determine if the asbestos is airborne and how air quality has been affected. Results from those tests were expected by Friday, but were not available by press time.

If the tests find asbestos is airborne, officials may also have to determine who has worked at or attended the facility in the past, as they could require medical tests, White said.

On Oct. 27 a Willowdale staff member at the centre discovered insulation at the bottom of a door frame.  Stantec Consulting had it tested last weekend and the centre was immediately evacuated when county officials received the results.

Medical Officer of Health Doctor Nicola Mercer said in a press release, “Not all vermiculite insulation contains asbestos but vermiculite produced at the Libby Mine in Montana was contaminated with asbestos.”

Mercer said in  an interview on Wednesday morning it would take hours of testing to determine if there are any legitimate health risks.

In some cases, asbestos contaminated vermiculite is used as insulation, but not all asbestos is harmful. The health risk comes from asbestos fibres, which float in the air and enter people’s lungs when they breathe it in.

Mercer said the body cannot expel it, so it often tries to coat it, which can lead to scarring of the lung tissues. In extraordinary cases, the body’s fight against those fibres can cause cancer.

But Mercer many older buildings have vermiculite with asbestos in them, but only asbestos with fibres causes problems. Further, if it is locked within walls as insulation, it is considered no problem. It is only when those walls are opened and asbestos fibres released that there could be a health hazard.

Mercer knows asbestos all too well. The health unit was forced to leave its Delhi Street headquarters in Guelph a few years ago when asbestos was found there. It later turned out that fibre asbestos was not present at that site.

She said she hopes the tests being conducted by a third party will be able to reassure children and staff that there are no health dangers from the centre.

White said the county conducted “hazardous material assessments” at a number of buildings in 2006. At that time there was some asbestos identified in the Willowdale Child Care and Learning Centre, he said, specifically mentioning areas around the building’s pipes.

However, officials “remediated” part of the problem and the rest of the asbestos was not accessible and therefore not considered a threat to human health because it was not airborne, he explained.

On Wednesday, children from the Willowdale centre were either staying at home or at private facilities arranged by parents. White said county officials were working diligently to find a short-term private facility for all children.

“This is a stressful enough situation without having to take away the service,” White said.

He explained finding a suitable location could be difficult because it requires approval from the Ministry of Children and Youth Services (as child care facilities are licenced) and officials prefer a local spot.

“If we find one and it meets the requirements, we’ll get it up and running as soon as possible,” said White.

He added the county will continue its investigation and will release more information as it becomes available.

Libby Mine asbestos

Gold miners discovered vermiculite in Libby in 1881; in the 1920s the Zonolite Company formed and began mining the vermiculite. In 1963, W.R. Grace bought the Zonolite mining operations. The mine closed in 1990.

While in operation, the Libby mine may have produced 80 percent of the world’s supply of vermiculite. Vermiculite has been used in building insulation and as a soil conditioner. But, the vermiculite from the Libby mine was contaminated with a toxic form of naturally-occurring asbestos called tremolite-actinolite asbestiform mineral fibers.