The problem at Americana Apartments began after a third-floor resident, concerned over the possibility of asbestos dust from ceiling insulation, demanded that tests be done. They were, and asbestos was found at high levels in several apartments.
It became obvious that construction workers had not followed protocol for dealing with asbestos during the roof repairs, causing dust from the insulation to fall on furniture, clothes and kitchen utensils in the apartments.
"I can't bear this," said one third floor resident on Friday who wished to remain anonymous. "It's a health hazard."
Early rains on the weekend of Oct. 6 complicated matters, as water poured through the openings. All residents of the third floor were evacuated to a Milpitas hotel (the Stanford homecoming game had apparently filled up local hotels), and many still are not able to return to their homes.
Last Friday, Oct. 12, residents of Building Five had visibly shifted into emergency mode, having previously woken each other in the middle of the night to make sure rain was caught with buckets throughout the second floor. Ceilings were starting to peel and stain, carpet had been torn up or lay damp, and rain buckets were a common sight.
Residents were angry that construction workers could not explain what was going on, or why they could not retrieve their belongings on the third floor.
At a meeting Friday evening, Americana apartment manager Mike Drouin asked residents not to panic. Earlier that week, he said, he'd hired an environmental consulting firm, ACC Environmental, which had sent almost all of its employees to the large complex.
The other Americana buildings — buildings One, Two, Three and Four — had undergone similar roof work over the summer, and residents there were worried their apartments may have asbestos as well. Drouin said ACC has tested one unit on each floor in those buildings. One unit in Building Three reportedly had to undergo decontamination over the weekend.
Thankfully, the moisture from the rain is helping to keep the asbestos dust down at Building Five, Drouin said. But without thorough testing in all the units, many residents have been left to wonder about their own apartments.
According to a letter from ACC Environmental posted in Building Five, of the 17 test results available Friday, only six apartments had measurable amounts of asbestos. At least one was found to have a very high level of asbestos — 1.2 million structures per square centimeter. By comparison, the company says, a common "background" level of asbestos is 10,000 structures per square centimeter, while "high" is 100,000. There is no regulated limit, according to the state Department of Health.
Richard Ames, the city building inspector who issued permits for the project, said the city usually doesn't regulate asbestos issues. Determining who regulates asbestos contamination during construction projects was left to residents to figure out on the Internet. One complained that "nobody wants to give us a professional answer" about the safety of the asbestos levels.
At the Friday meeting, Drouin said the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control are the regulators he is dealing with, and both have requested copies of test results. The air quality district could not be reached by press time.
According to the state Department of Health, "Symptoms of lung problems do not usually appear until 20 to 30 years of exposure to high levels of asbestos fibers. Most people do not develop health problems when exposed to small amounts of asbestos." More on asbestos, including a list of laboratories that can test for it, is available at www.cal-iaq.org/asb00-03.htm.
Residents claimed they had to push for the tests to be done, and to make sure the correct "wipe tests" for asbestos dust were done after air samples came back negative.
A positive test often means the residents of that apartment are in a hotel room for some length of time. Last Friday, for example, one mother told the Voice she was outraged that management had not told her whether it was safe for her and her child to stay in their second floor apartment in Building Five.
By Monday, a neighbor said tests had found asbestos levels in her apartment high enough to warrant decontamination, forcing them to move into a hotel over the weekend.