The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 21, Number 4
Nov 1997


A Dry Disaster in Pennsylvania State Library

What follows is a summary of a news story by David DeKok that ran on page G1 and G2 of the March 31, 1996, Sunday Patriot-News, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It starts dramatically: "Around May 22, 1995, a librarian discovered black dust in the lower stacks of the state library. Two days later, the dust was proven to be from lead paint. Now, no one may enter the tainted area without protective clothing."

A year earlier, the state Department of General Services had failed to use accepted lead-paint-removal procedures during a renovation of the Forum Building, in which the library is located. About 700,000 books, maps and microfilm were contaminated with lead dust as a result, including all federal and state documents received before May 1995 and all bound periodicals. In March, 1996, more than nine months after the contamination was discovered, a consultant had finally been hired to advise on the cleanup job, but the cost had not yet been estimated. The lead, most of which had settled as dust, varied from 4.8 micrograms to 129,000 micrograms per square foot; HUD guidelines specify a maximum of 100 micrograms per square foot.

At the time this work was done, there were no government regulations for removal of lead paint, only federal guidelines. The guidelines had the force of law only when work was being done for the federal government. In late fall of 1994, General Services decided to follow HUD standards for lead paint removal, but did not implement that decision with this project. Its employees knew what kind of paint was involved, and had been trained in the methods to use, but the contract did not specify them and the paint was not identified as lead paint. The painters who worked for the subcontractor used scrapers and powered wire brushes to remove the old paint

The safe way to remove lead paint is to contain and remove the dust before it can affect people and infiltrate the structure and its contents, experts say. (The reporter interviewed a large number of experts on this and other aspects of the story.) One of them said that a Pennsylvania firm, Pentek Inc. of Coraopolis, manufactures a device called the Vac-Pac that safely removes lead paint from metal windows and vacuums all dust and debris into containers. It is so efficient that respirators for workers are optional.

The lead dust was the worst consequence of the renovation, but not the only one. There were 255 moldy books which had become wet either because of a 15-year-old roof leak or because of crumbling mortar in the exterior walls, which may have admitted water from the power washing during renovation. (Chief of staff Christine Ewing says she did witness water spraying onto books through the walls, but the masonry cleaning contractor claims the water entered through the roof.) The caulking around many of the windows had deteriorated, which also could have admitted water.

At the time this story was written, the question of whether the state or the contractors would pay for the hazardous dust cleanup had not been decided.


Update, Nov. 13, 1997: A representative of the Department of Education, under which the Library is organized, called to give an update on this story, after receiving a faxed copy.

The lead dust removal problem was dealt with successfully. The project began in September 1996 and was completed in December 1996. The total book collection is now accessible to the public.

Dust was removed from each book with a HEPA vacuum, and the entire area was vacuumed and cleaned. There have been no reports of health problems among the staff.

The final count of wet books was about 330, not 255. Three hundred had to be destroyed because of mold growth. Thirty law books were damaged but were freeze- dried and returned to circulation.

The project was paid for cooperatively by the Department of Education, General Services, and the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission.

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