Man suing Sonoma State University over asbestos speaks out

A former worker at the Rohnert Park campus held a news conference to suggest the college has failed to address a problem with cancer-causing asbestos, but university officials say its presence is overstated.|

A former Sonoma State University employee who sounded the alarm about asbestos contamination spoke up on campus Thursday to voice his concerns about what he describes as continuing elevated levels of the hazardous substance in some of the school’s buildings.

“There’s asbestos dust in really high concentrations, right within arm’s reach of building occupants,” said Thomas Sargent, the environmental health and safety specialist who claims supervisors ignored his warnings about an asbestos problem at the Rohnert Park campus and then retaliated against him when he reported it to authorities, forcing him to resign.

Sargent on Thursday said test results taken last month show asbestos problems persist at Stevenson Hall, with high concentrations on bookshelves where samples were taken.

Sargent, who has sued the university, was flanked by his two attorneys during a press conference held outdoors at the Mario Savio Speaker Corner, with a couple of dozen people in attendance, including some employees, students, media and administrators.

His lawsuit, which is scheduled for trial July 29 in Sonoma County court, alleges Sonoma State has a longstanding policy of “willful ignorance” when it comes to lead and asbestos hazards.

But the university says previous tests as well as the air samples it has been conducting on a monthly basis since the start of the year and sending to Cal-?OSHA regulators have not detected asbestos fibers, so there is no hazard.

Citing the Environmental Health Protection Agency, a university administrator said asbestos exposure results from breathing in asbestos fibers and “asbestos exposure is not a problem if solid asbestos is left alone and not disturbed.”

Judging from a small sampling of opinions Thursday, students expressed a range of reactions to the asbestos issue, which has been the subject of recent articles in the Sonoma State Star campus newspaper.

Some on Thursday weren’t aware of it; some said they were satisfied with the administration’s position that the buildings are essentially safe; and one expressed concern that it is affecting her health.

Marie Lopez, a sophomore who has three classes in Stevenson Hall for a total of nine hours per week there, worries that her dry and occasional bloody nose she’s had throughout the semester could be tied to asbestos presence.

“I was definitely concerned about it,” she said, to the point she visited the school clinic. “It only seems to happen when I go into the buildings here.”

She wishes that the school were more proactive about fixing the problem. Lopez said the classrooms don’t have windows and there needs to be better ventilation.

“I don’t know if it’s related or not,” she said of the presence of asbestos and her symptoms. “Something told me it might be. Who really knows what the cause is?”

Asbestos was once common in building construction, used for insulation, sound reduction and fire retardant qualities.

There are six buildings dating back more than a half-century on campus where Sargent asserts that asbestos dust has likely contaminated the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

University officials, however, say they have taken a number of measures to manage asbestos, including using sealants and installing floormats to keep chair casters from further eroding floor tiles that contain asbestos.

But some faculty members have expressed qualms about the safety of their offices.

The union for the university’s more than 600 faculty members has filed a grievance over the issue and hired a consultant to ensure they have a safe working environment.

One member of the faculty filed a court statement as part of Sargent’s lawsuit suggesting that the lymph cancer she was diagnosed with in 2010 could be tied to toxins at Sonoma State.

The crux of the disagreement between Sargent, a certified asbestos consultant, and university officials is over the method of the testing and whether asbestos that has settled on surfaces, on some window sills and bookshelves poses a hazard.

Sargent argues that the university needs to do more air sampling at a time when the buildings are under general occupancy, during “high disturbance activities,” especially when workers go into the ventilation system and “bang on panels.”

In two air shafts at Stevenson Hall, an independent testing company in January found levels above the 100,000 asbestos “structures” per square centimeter that are considered high by industry standards.

One air shaft was found with 518,000 asbestos structures per square centimeter, and another had 259,000.

University health and safety officials do not dispute the measurements, but said they were taken from settled surfaces not accessible to regular building occupants.

On Thursday, Sargent highlighted a test that showed 220,000 parts per square centimeter on a bookshelf in Stevenson Hall.

“There’s 22 million asbestos structures in a space this big,” he said stretching his arms. “Granted those books have been there a long time, but sooner or later someone is going to pull those books down,” he said.

Sargent’s attorney, Dustin Collier, said the university doesn’t want to acknowledge the problem because of the cost to fix it.

Sonoma State spokeswoman Susan Kashack said “that’s so utterly untrue. These are people we care about. Our colleagues and students. People aren’t put in danger for monetary purposes.”

The university has wanted to renovate Stevenson Hall for a number of years, Kashack said, but it has not been simply because of the presence of asbestos.

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