ORONO, Maine — The momentum for rehabbing the old field house at the University of Maine has been building for many years, according to Elaine Clark, executive director for facilities, real estate and planning at UMaine. Chief among her concerns are health and safety factors associated with the old building she said Monday.

For one thing, she said, the field house needs serious updates to comply with the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. Handicapped-accessible bathrooms, automatic doors, new elevators and better signage are among the improvements needed, she said.

Additionally, the building contains significant amounts of asbestos, which was commonly used years ago in pipe insulation and in the mastic used to attach flooring tiles to the sub-floor. Exposure to asbestos fibers is associated with respiratory illnesses, including an especially deadly form of lung cancer known as mesothelioma and a chronic condition known as asbestosis.

The asbestos that remains at the UMaine field house is securely covered and poses no health risk until it is disturbed during renovation projects, when it is removed anyway, Clark said. The large-scale update of the field house is the perfect opportunity to get rid of the building’s asbestos altogether, Clark said.

But chief among the problems at the field house, Clark said, is the presence of small amounts of mercury vapor. The vapor is being emitted by rubberized flooring installed throughout the original field house in 1972 on both the circular track that rings the perimeter of the facility and on the playing surfaces within its boundaries.

Exposure to mercury, a heavy metal, is associated with neurological damage, especially in children and young adults.

Resilient polyurethane flooring installed in many sports facilities between 1960 and 1980 contains mercury salts, added to catalyze a chemical reaction that hardens the poured floors and increases durability, according to a report published in 2006 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The report says that although the amount of mercury vapor emitted by these floors is typically low, it increases with use and may affect the health of people who are routinely exposed.

Samples of air at “breathing level” inside the field house last December found mercury at 0.20 micrograms per cubic liter of air at one end of the building and 0.16 mcg per cubic meter at the other. These measures are below state and national safety thresholds.

Both the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection say it is safe for adults to spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week breathing air with up to 0.30 mcg per cubic meter of air. Higher levels are safe for shorter periods of time, according to groups such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which says it is safe to spend the equivalent of eight hours of a 40-hour workweek breathing air that contains up to 50 mcg per cubic liter.

Clark said mercury vapor at the levels found in the UMaine field house poses little threat to the health of students, staff or the tens of thousands of others who pass through the area each year to attend events such as high school track meets, craft fairs and the Eastern Maine Sportsman’s Show.

Nonetheless, she said, removing and replacing the track and flooring is a priority measure that likely will begin this summer. The overall renovation of the field house, she estimated, could take until the end of 2012 to complete.

For toxicologist Deborah Rice, an expert on mercury with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the mercury vapor at the field house is a significant issue, even at relatively low levels. For young adults, including many college students, she noted, exposure to mercury can permanently impair the ability to think and solve problems, decrease memory and alter sensory perception. For younger children, and for young women of childbearing age, the risks are greater, she said.

“These are not high levels,” Rice said of the UMaine test results. “Certainly the school should mitigate it, but this is not a case of students’ health being put at risk as a result of being in the building.”

A large percentage of the funding for the field house renovation will be provided by a $7 million university bond issue with $850,000 in state debt service funding approved each year for 10 years beginning with the 2012 biennial budget.

The provision was included in the supplemental budget approved earlier this spring by the Legislature.

Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, House chairwoman of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, which endorsed the future funding provision, said Monday that virtually every lawmaker on the committee had attended functions at the venerable field house, and all were united in their agreement that it was “a walking disaster area” in need of major updating.

Similar capital improvements to ensure the health and safety of Maine people exist at college campuses across the state, she said, but the UMaine project captured broad support, even during a time of financial difficulty for the state budget.

“It was understood that this is a project with statewide significance,” she said. “It is not a question of is this is the right time or not, because the need is ongoing.”

Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at mhaskell@bangordailynews.com.