June 9th, 2008
The recent demolition of the Worcester State Hospital Kirkbride got me thinking about asbestos and other dangerous materials lingering inside old abandoned buildings. Most of you who visit these places on a regular basis know all about this issue already, but I thought I’d write some words of caution for those who aren’t aware of it. If you’re planning on visiting Kirkbrides, you should know about this.
Back when asbestos was still considered a sort of miracle substance, it was was widely used throughout buildings to prevent the spread of fire. Its natural resistance to heat made it a popular fireproofing material. It was used in shingles, cement, wall-board, floor tiles, adhesives, joint compounds, siding, and as insulation for steam pipes. Most abandoned Kirkbride buildings contain at least some of this substance, if not a lot. It’s not uncommon to see warnings attached to these buildings declaring the presence of asbestos (see above photo from Danvers State Hospital).
Asbestos isn’t a major threat until it becomes airborne in the form of dust. Because of the level of decay in long abandoned buildings though, stirring some up just by walking around is a real possibility. In addition to asbestos, lead paint is another dangerous presence in many Kirkbrides. It’s probably not as lethal as asbestos, but it’s definitely not good for you. And its threat to your health is also heightened by the level of decay. And rounding things out, we also have mold and mildew. Prolonged exposure to these can sometimes lead to illness as well. Altogether, these things can make for some pretty malignant air quality.
Many “explorers” wear respirators when exploring the interior of an old building. It’s a wise practice and one you should follow if you plan to go inside these places. Sure you won’t look as sexy posing for that killer self-portrait on the theater balcony, but it’s better to be healthy than sexy. Wait a minute…is it? Yeah, probably. Just make sure the respirator filter you use is rated for asbestos or you won’t be protecting your respiratory system from asbestos.
Even without a respirator, if your visits are infrequent, chances aren’t THAT high you’ll inhale anything causing long-term damage. But it’s better to be safe than sorry. Prognosis is usually pretty bad for someone who develops asbestosis or mesothelioma. Another unfortunate fact is that symptoms may not appear until decades after exposure. That’s why people who’ve experienced high levels of exposure (including many state hospital employees) often file claims and lawsuits without having any symptoms of these diseases. The full blown illness may not develop for years.
Just something to think about if you’re considering a visit to your local Kirkbride building. These places are beautiful to look at and fascinating to explore, but be aware of the risks. In addition to the obvious hazards of collapsing floors and rusting nails, there can be invisible dangers floating through the air. I don’t recommend anyone enter these buildings, but if you’re determined to do so, make sure you do all you can to protect your health. You don’t want to end up a patient in a regular hospital as a result of a little adventure inside an abandoned one.