Asbestos ‘Everywhere,’ But Risk is Minimal, Administrators Say

As Harvard continues to renew the College’s undergraduate Houses, “several” of these decades-old buildings on campus contain asbestos, a potentially carcinogenic chemical that was once regularly used for construction.

Presence of asbestos in the Houses, though, is not a concern to administrators, who say that it is unlikely the chemical will pose any sort of health risks to students.

Last year, then-Winthrop resident Matthew W.G. Walker ’16 returned to his dorm room to find it covered in asbestos-laced dust that had fallen from the ceiling of his room. Though the discovery of asbestos kicked off a flurry of discussion about asbestos at Winthrop, many of Harvard’s older buildings contain asbestos, according to administrators.

Zachary M. Gingo, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Senior Director of Facilities Operations said asbestos can not only be found in the Houses but also in office buildings and some older libraries. Gingo said that asbestos does not pose health risks unless it is made “friable,” or ground into a fine powder.

While Gingo did not explicitly name the Houses which have asbestos, Adams House, Eliot House, Kirkland House, Lowell House, parts of Pforzheimer House, and parts of Cabot House were all built before 1970 and have not had major renovations since.

Though the asbestos may be widespread, Gingo said Harvard ensures it does not become friable.

“Harvard takes every precaution to ensure that that does not happen on campus, employing specific maintenance protocols to avoid the damage or disturbance of potentially asbestos-containing materials,» he wrote in an emailed statement.

Gingo added that House building managers are aware which parts of their house might contain asbestos, and hire “third-party experts” to remove the asbestos before any work is done on those areas.

“There’s asbestos hidden away in all older buildings, but whenever found during work, the official team comes in and takes it out safely,” said Sean Palfrey, a Faculty Dean of Adams House. “This is a fact of life, and as long as everyone is aware it could be there, the response is well-established.”

Gingo said asbestos removal does not only occur only during major building renovations— Eliot House is set to be examined this summer, according to Gingo. This examination is part of an ongoing process that was started in the 1980s.

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