McGill, Montreal, News

Discovery of asbestos in Arts building disrupts ‘Legally Blonde’ production, worries students who frequent the space

On Sunday, Jan. 21, students in the Department of English received an email from their chair, Professor Erin Hurley, who shared a Jan. 19 announcement from Facilities Management and Ancillary Services (FMAS). The announcement explained that plaster debris found at the back of the stage in Moyse Hall had tested positive for asbestos, a carcinogenic material used in construction between 1930 and 1990. The message specified that several spaces in the McCall MacBain Arts Building—including the stage (room 165A), room 165, room 165C, room 100, and part of the basement—are off limits as testing continues and FMAS does “remediation work.” This announcement comes after McGill closed three buildings at the Macdonald Campus early last year due to the discovery of asbestos, prompting McGill’s Internal Audit unit to look into the handling of the situation. The investigation culminated in a report, 25 recommendations, and the creation of a task force

Unlike last year’s asbestos-related closures, no university-wide message has been sent about the Moyse Hall closure. According to McGill Media Relations Officer Frédérique Mazerolle, “Communications may be expanded to the wider community depending on the information gathered through the assessments currently underway.  ” As of Jan. 29, the webpage for Moyse Hall contained a notice that the theatre and nearby rooms were temporarily closed, but did not state a reason. 

Asbestos is a health risk when the lightweight fibres become airborne, which often happens during demolition and construction projects, or when there is damage to a building. If materials containing asbestos are left undisturbed or sealed, they are not thought to be a health risk. Air samples were taken in the Arts Building on Jan. 19; according to Mazerolle, the results “indicate that air in Moyse Hall is within the regulatory thresholds set by the Government of Quebec and as well as our more stringent McGill thresholds.” Quebec’s cut-off for office and classroom settings to be considered safe is 0.1 asbestos fibres per cubic centimetre, and McGill’s is 0.01.

Sarah Pattloch, U3 Arts and the lighting designer for the Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society’s (AUTS) Legally Blonde production—which was slated to take place in Moyse Hall before the asbestos was discovered—found out about the closure of Moyse Hall days before an official email went out.

“We were in the theatre in Moyse for the first day of tech on Jan. 15th, on the Monday, and then the theatre was closed and we weren’t allowed in on the 16th and on the 17th,” Pattloch said. “We had a group Zoom meeting for cast and crew on the 17th, where we found out why we weren’t allowed in. Our production manager and director and maybe a couple of people had been having meetings with Erin Hurley […]  and stuff, where they found out this information, on Wednesday the 17th.”

The Legally Blonde production ultimately had to change venues last minute, as the show started on Jan. 26, proving stressful for those involved. 

“We had to really tone down what we were doing for set, for sound, for lighting, for all of the technical aspects, because at that point we’d already lost a week of tech, so we didn’t really have time to add all that we wanted to if we would have been in Moyse,” Pattloch said. “And also the new venue doesn’t really allow for the same level of production that we were going to be doing.”

According to Kimberly Hönig, U4 Arts, AUTS President, and Production Manager of Legally Blonde, the production was also forced to abandon their live band, as it did not work in the new space. She also pointed out that the closure of Moyse Hall has resulted in an immense financial burden for AUTS. Materials, such as musical instruments which they rented, are now locked inside Moyse Hall.

Hönig shared that many members of the Legally Blonde team are uneasy in light of the news that they were exposed to asbestos. She believes that McGill has not done enough to keep students informed or alleviate concerns. 

“In terms of the health repercussions of the asbestos exposure, I mean, a lot of us on the team have been in and around Moyse Hall for a few years, since we’ve been at McGill, so that’s definitely a concern,” Hönig said. “Especially because we don’t really have any information coming from McGill, about what the health repercussions are [….] We were in that space and moving around that space for an entire day before we knew anything.”

Hönig pointed out that there has been little to no communication from university administrators over the issue, but instead, the English dDepartment and Moyse Hall technicians played a key role in relaying information.

“I want to stress that the communication that I’ve received about the closure of Moyse Hall and the asbestos and the warnings and all of that has not come from McGill specifically, or the health and safety team,” Hönig added. “I have been getting that information, and all my communication, through Professor Erin Hurley, the chair of the English dDepartment, and the technicians at Moyse Hall [….] The only message that we’ve gotten from McGill or from the health and services team is that official message that kind of went out to all the English undergraduate students.”

Pattloch, similarly, feels the university has not been maintaining an open dialogue with students.

“I haven’t been in contact with anyone directly from the department. I saw that they sent out like one email, at least a few days after we found out the news, so […] the email didn’t tell us anything else,” Pattloch said. “All the other information that I’ve been getting—about what’s closing, what they’re trying to do, if they’re trying to open at any point—has kind of come from different people that I know in classes, or in other departments, or with some other kinds of connections.”

The Tribune reached out to Hurley, who stated that McGill’s communications team was fielding all questions about the situation. 

In response to a question about how the university plans to address students’ and staff members’ concerns and anxiety about potentially being exposed to asbestos, Mazerolle stressed that the risk is low.

“Government health authorities state that ‘health problems associated with asbestos are in the general population’; they are more common in people who work in areas where there is high exposure for a prolonged amount of time, such as in an asbestos mine and factories that manufacture parts containing asbestos,” Mazerolle wrote. “However, people with concerns may wish to consult a health care professional.”

Although Mazerolle claims that “Students and staff associated with the Department of English received an email about the situation on Jan. 19, as well as a more recent update [on Jan. 25] that included the fact [that] air tests undertaken in Moyse Hall were within regulatory thresholds,” students in the English department have told The Tribune that they were only formally notified of the asbestos on Jan. 21, and did not recieve a follow-up with results of the air quality tests.

According to Mazerolle, there is not yet a set date for when Moyse Hall will be deemed safe and reopened.

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