Five buildings at Unitec’s Mt Albert campus have been closed temporarily to enable extensive internal and external testing of asbestos levels.

Questions and answers (tap on a question to expand)

Where is the contamination, what caused it and what actions are being taken?

1. When did you first know about this contamination?
As with many buildings built prior to 20 years ago, some of our buildings contain asbestos (SiteSafe NZ factsheet: locations where asbestos may be present) which we manage through a campus–wide, and building–specific asbestos management plan, along with regular inspections and monitoring when we have large invasive construction works on affected building such as the works on B108.

The initial contamination was first found in a room in B113 last week during proactive air monitoring undertaken during renovations. The testing also included level 2 of B113 as well as levels 2 and 3 of building B112. The room itself tested very high and had been sealed for remedial work.

Further testing found that all other areas were within acceptable limits, less than the Ministry of Health 0.01 fibres/mL threshold, with one exception, which was an area monitored on level 3 of B113 showed a concentration of 0.02 fibres/mL.

On Thursday 18 March, the decision was made to proactively close level 3 of B113 as a precautionary measure following the test results. This area was closed within 45 minutes of the decision being made, i.e., locked and lift access removed to the floor.

On Wednesday 24 March 2021, our asbestos consultants Thomas Consultants advised us that during the site investigation to identify the source of the elevated reading on level 3, asbestos has been identified on the exterior landings/maintenance decks of the building. The decision was made to close B111-B115 as a precautionary proactive measure as soon as practicable, noting there are many classes, teaching staff & support/ non-teaching functions located in these buildings. WorkSafe NZ have been informed of the issue and our response throughout, and they are highly supportive of the response and timeliness of this response.

2. Did cleaning of the building cause the contamination?
Due to the age of the buildings, degradation of some areas of the waterproof membrane on the balconies on B111-115 has occurred and while we are still investigating, this can be through water ingress or environmental exposure. This degradation has meant that this normally ‘bonded’ surface has yielded free fibres. The good news is that this degradation has happened over a reasonably short amount of time, indicating short term exposure.
3. Did the work being done in building 108 cause the contamination?
No. The work in B108 is being carried out by Nikau Group and Brosnan Construction, who are trusted partners of the institute. These contractors have been working on Building 108 at our Mt Albert campus since 2019. Nikau Group and Brosnan Construction are trusted experts in environmental remediation and their professionalism and expertise in the work they have conducted with and for us is exceptional. Extensive air quality monitoring has been conducted throughout the B108 project to ensure that the building itself and the surrounding areas are safe to occupy. The source of asbestos detected in the recently closed buildings is a different type of asbestos to that being removed in B108.
4. Do you know if the asbestos has contaminated other sites, e.g. other buildings on campus or surrounding areas?
There is no indication that other areas have been contaminated by this find. However, other buildings containing a similar asbestos-based waterproof membrane are being tested as a precaution.
5. What steps are you taking to find out the extent of the contamination?
We are conducting air quality monitoring programme and surface testing throughout the affected buildings to identify the extent. Results so far have been very promising and well within safe limits. If any areas are found to have levels that are above the acceptable limit, we will employ contractors to carry out cleaning of the affected areas and surrounds.
6. When will we know the extent of the contamination? What have you found out so far?
Air samples have been taken using vacuum sampling pumps which determine the number of fibres in the air, to determine if the acceptable level has been exceeded. All air quality monitoring undertaken so far have returned fibre concentrations below the acceptable level. Other samples include swabs taken from surfaces (which can determine a positive identification of an asbestos fibre but not a concentration).

Of the 180 surface samples taken on all levels in B111, B112, B113, B114 and B115, nine have detected the presence of chrysotile (white asbestos) fibres.

What is the risk to health?

1. What type of asbestos has been found?

The specialists involved have informed us that it is Chrysotile asbestos (also known as ‘White asbestos’). While white asbestos is a known carcinogen, ‘Brown’ and ‘Blue’ asbestos are considered the more dangerous forms of asbestos.

2. I have a sore throat or a cough, is it likely to be caused by asbestos?

No. At this stage we believe the risk to health is very low. Air monitoring results of the spaces inside the affected buildings have come back well within acceptable levels so the risk of exposure is very low.

3. I was a student at Unitec and attended classes in one of the affected buildings in the past five years, have I been exposed to unsafe levels of asbestos?e

As with most older buildings in New Zealand, asbestos was widely used as a bonded building material prior to the 1980s. While it is contained, it poses no or very low health risk. We have an asbestos register and an asbestos management plan at both campus and individual building level. If asbestos is detected or we are needing to work around it, we have a code of practice and approved methodology to work to, along with highly competent licensed asbestos contractors and asbestos assessors. Based on this programme, along with the most recent assessment and inspections, we are confident that our teaching spaces have been managed safely, and in line with best practice.

4. What should I do if I am worried about my exposure?

The risks to health are very low, given the limited exposure and very low levels of asbestos. However, if you are worried do speak to a doctor or nurse. Staff and current students can call Te Puna Waiora 0800 10 85 10.

5. How do I know if I’ve been affected?

Health risks differ depending on intensity, duration of exposure, the type of asbestos to which an individual is exposed. The situation at Unitec is one where the potential level of risk to health is very low. There are no immediate effects for the majority of people. If you have any health issues that you are concerned about do talk to your GP. There is an increased health risk of exacerbation of symptoms for people who already have lung cancer or lung disease.

6. Are you contacting previous students/staff to alert them of the issue?

At this stage we believe the risk to health is very low. We are carrying out air and surface testing to determine the level of contamination, and results so far have been very good and within safe levels. However, we will not know the full picture for a couple of days, at which time we will update this information. For these reasons, we will not be contacting previous staff and students at this time.

What is the impact on learning and access around campus?

1. Is the whole Unitec Mt Albert campus closed?
No. The buildings we’ve closed are B111, B112, B113, B114 and B115. This is a precautionary measure as we conduct extensive testing to ensure the spaces are safe to occupy. The rest of our Mt Albert campus, as well as our entire Waitakere campus, are all open and safe to to visit and attend classes.

2. My class was meant to be held in one of the affected buildings. Do I have to do the class online now?
Classes will either be moved online or rescheduled to a different time/space. Check for information about this from your teacher or on Moodle.

3. How long will the buildings be closed?
Until at least after Easter. We will know more in a few days, after our rigorous testing is complete.

4. Is the library open?
Yes. All other buildings, rooms and spaces on campus are open.

5. Is the Copy Centre operating?
Yes, with reduced services. It has been relocated to B110. Go to the reception desk (ring the bell if the desk is unattended). 

6. I need to contact Security, where do I go?
Security have a presence in Te Puna and have temporarily located to building 107.

7. Can I remove anything from the affected buildings?
At this stage, no, while we assess the level of contamination (if any) inside the buildings. 


Help and support

The factsheet locations where asbestos may be present from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment gives more information on asbestos and where it may be present in New Zealand buildings. 

Students, please contact Student Central for questions and support.

Media releases

25 March 2021: Unitec takes swift precautionary action to protect health of staff and students.