Betsy Sugar ‘21

Staff Writer

A portion of Roosevelt Wilson Park is closed off due to latent asbestos contamination.  Photo by John Crawford ‘20.

Asbestos does not degrade on its own after a few years. Fibers remain in the soil, and changes in the weather can disturb latent asbestos and bring it to the surface and into the air. The recent heavy rains have done just that. As a result, parts of Roosevelt Wilson Park have been roped off by the North Carolina Department for Environmental Quality (NCDEQ), and citizens have expressed concern about asbestos on their properties.  

Asbestos is a mineral fiber that occurs naturally in rock and soil, commonly used in building insulation and as a fire retardant. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), exposure to asbestos can lead to lung cancer, including mesothelioma, a particularly aggressive form of cancer. Since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned its use in 1989, asbestos is no longer used in construction but may be found in older buildings or around old asbestos factories, as is the case with the residential area near the homes on Depot Street by Roosevelt Wilson Park. 

On Monday, January 13th, the North Carolina Division of Waste Management’s Inactive Hazardous Sites Branch hosted a public meeting to discuss asbestos management plans hosted in the Ada Jenkins Center. According to a public letter from the town of Davidson, the “meeting provided citizens with the risk management plans for the residential area where asbestos fill material was used in local yards or driveways.” 

From the 1930s until its closure in 1960, the Carolina Asbestos Corporation operated a factory on the corner of Depot Street and Sloan Street, near CrossFit Davidson. Since its closure, the NCDEQ has managed  the asbestos at the factory site. In 2016, the NCDEQ contacted the EPA Emergency Response Program to address the asbestos in residential areas through remediation. Many residents were temporarily relocated for the cleanup process, which included the replacement of soil that contained asbestos. 

Rosalia Polanco ‘18 studied the asbestos in Davidson for her environmental studies capstone project, which won an award from the Southern Anthropology Society. Polanco credits her courses focused on  environmental justice and environmental racism for piquing her interest in the subject. However, she explained, “the stakes are different when you realize it’s happening in the very town you live in.” As she outlined in her capstone, the residents most affected by the asbestos are people of color, the majority of whom are African American. 

Associate Dean of Faculty  Dr. Fuji Lozada, who teaches in both the Anthropology and Environmental Studies departments, worked with Polanco on her capstone, and credits her for everything he knows about the asbestos situation in Davidson. “Anything I know about the issue is because of Rosalia’s research.”

The most recent  government intervention was the remediation process that took place in 2016. To fast-track the cleanup, the EPA designated the affected area in Davidson as a Brownfield site. According to the EPA, a Brownfield site is “a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” Brownfield designation allots EPA funding to developers to cleanup the affected area from the hazardous materials. Brownfield sites, however, do not receive as much funding as Superfund sites, areas contaminated “due to hazardous waste being dumped, left out in the open, or otherwise improperly managed.” If the area in town had been designated a Superfund site, the EPA would have had more leeway to fully rid the town of asbestos, but it would have been a longer process that could have resulted in the destruction of homes. 

Citizens in the town have been greatly affected by the presence of asbestos. Polanco recalls “feelings of invisibility and grief [due to health effects on family members] that came up throughout interviews.” As Polanco outlines in her capstone, people of the town had voiced concerns about the presence of asbestos going back decades. There are records of formal complaints to the town reporting visible evidence of asbestos in the 1980s. 

At the end of the first remediation process, 6,200 tons of asbestos-contaminated waste were removed from the neighborhood near the site of the old asbestos factory. Since 2017, local agencies have continued to monitor and provide information regarding safe practices. The NCDEQ has been primarily in charge of testing the watch areas for further evidence of asbestos. 

Asbestos has had a long history in the town of Davidson, and continues to affect many of its citizens today.“It’s like lead,” Dr. Lozada explained on the long lasting presence of asbestos, “There are many of these lingering problems, because things just don’t go away.”