Historic Buildings Fall Victim to Asbestos

Protecting historic buildings is an important part of preserving our culture, but historic structures face a constant stream of threats both from both man and nature. While fights over buildings are often dramatized as battles between preservationists and construction developers, the reality is that many of the decisions made on whether or not to save a building are based mostly on the cost of maintenance, renovation or demolition.

Asbestos abatement is becoming a more prevalent issue for parties looking to protect older buildings. Many of these structures, which have been abandoned or show signs of age, have asbestos-containing products among their building materials and the removal process can be extremely costly. Asbestos was used as a building material in many major building projects in the United States from the late 1800s until the 1970s, when it became clear that the material was unsafe.  Many of those buildings now sit in a state of disrepair because the funds to not exist to renovate the buildings or demolish them safely.

In Charleston, West Virgina, the former Staats Hospital has been empty since the early 1980s and shows many of the signs of three decades of decay. The hospital was built in 1922 and originally served as a movie theater and hub of culture for Charleston’s historic Elk City district. Without thousands of dollars in investment, the 47,000 square foot building will continue to deteriorate further exposing the asbestos contained within the walls. "It's an old building that needs complete remodeling," real estate developer Larry Kopelman told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. "You've got old-building issues."

Similarly, on the island of Kauai in Hawaii, the historic Lihue Sugar Mill, which opened in the middle of the 1800s and is one of the oldest permanent structures on the island, is being demolished as a means of controlling the asbestos hazards. The Hawaiian rain forest has accelerated the hazards presented from the structure, which is rapidly being consumed by the native vegetation after sitting dormant for more than a decade. The demolition of the structure is expected to take six months, with asbestos removal accounting for a big chunk of that time. 

While tearing down the building is necessary because of the dangers presented by asbestos, for many in that community, the demolition means tearing down part of their history. Lyle Tabata, 55, who served as the last factory manager at the mill told the Honolulu Star Advertiser, "It's very sad that all the sugar companies have gone by the wayside.”

Both of these buildings put the spotlight on a bigger problem being experienced nationwide. Communities are being forced to destroy their history because of the dangers of asbestos and the potential for asbestos-related diseases such asmesothelioma and asbestosis. Ultimately the only way to truly eliminate the risk of these diseases here in the United States is a national ban on asbestos. It's the only way to protect our safety -- and it just might help preserve our history.