Frequently Asked Questions: Stewart Biology Building Water Incident and Closure

Published: 22 February 2023

On this page: Building closure | Information about testing | Asbestos and health | Communications about the closure | Renovation of the Stewart Biology Building

Building closure

What caused this situation?

On the evening of February 5 and the early morning hours of February 6, 2023, extreme temperatures led two pipes to burst in the Stewart Biology Building, causing flooding in parts of the North and South Blocks.

What was McGill’s response?

When flooding occurs in a building that contains asbestos, there is a chance that water may carry asbestos fibers out of closed walls and ceilings (where they are contained and generally safe) into open areas such as rooms and hallways (where they may later disperse into the air and pose a risk). Therefore, clean-up was conducted with the aim of both remediating the flood damage and removing asbestos that may have been carried by water into open areas. As part of this process, extensive testing also took place in the North and South Blocks.

Why has the building remained closed for so long?

After cleaning took place, all air tests indicated that the building was safe for use. However, further swipe tests revealed trace amounts of asbestos. Though the air test results would have provided sufficient grounds to re-open the building at that point as per Quebec government and McGill standards, we decided to undertake an additional round of cleaning in areas where these trace amounts were found in swipe tests. We recognize that this additional degree of caution delayed the re-opening of the building and understand that these disruptions caused major issues for many of you, with a real and regrettable impact on teaching, research and other vital activities. Nonetheless, these disruptions were unavoidable as we worked to repair the flood damage, clean the affected areas, and keep our community safe.

On the evening of Wednesday, February 22, we received new air test results for the North Block. Like the previous air test results, these indicated that the North Block was indeed safe as per both Quebec government safety standards and McGill’s more stringent self-imposed standards. Therefore, we announced that the North Block would reopen.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, February 28, we received additional air test results for the South Block. As with the North Block results, these were in full compliance with Quebec government safety standards and McGill’s self-imposed standards and indicated that the South Block was safe. Following this, the South Block reopened as well.

Is the building safe?

Yes. Air testing was conducted to provincial regulatory specifications in the affected areas of the North and South Blocks. Without exception, each of these tests showed that the air is safe as per Quebec government standards and McGill’s own more stringent standards.

Why was the building only properly locked on Tuesday afternoon? Why was it still possible to access the building during the weekend as well as Monday and Tuesday morning?

The building was in fact locked as of Monday evening, Feb. 6 (except for one door that was inadvertently forgotten and enabled some individuals to enter on Tuesday morning, despite the message and signage indicating that the building was closed). Posters informing people that the building was closed were put up on all perimeter doors of both North and South blocks at the end of day Monday (Feb. 6). 

Between Sunday evening (Feb. 5) and Monday late morning, access to the flooded areas was restricted by security agents (including all of the South block, given the central location of the damages).  

On Monday morning (Feb. 6), water supply to the entire building was suspended while the source of the flooding in the South block was being investigated. A message asking people to avoid the building was sent at 8 a.m., also informing the community that morning classes had been moved online or cancelled. As individuals continued to enter the building and the water supply had been suspended, the community was informed a few minutes after 11 a.m. that the building was closed. 

Why was the entire building closed when only levels below 3 were affected?

In this case, it was assessed that, due to the location of the floods, it was difficult to isolate the areas subject to the flood. 

How will future situations be handled to address the provision of administrative and operational support to building occupants of the Stewart Biology Building?

When events occur that affect business continuity, the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) is convened. EOC brings in expertise and representatives from all areas of the University. Each situation is different and will have different impacts. EOC is responsible for planning the necessary actions required to limit the impact of an event, starting with the safety of community members.

Beyond emergency management, the team that runs EOC also works on emergency preparedness. This includes developing mitigation measures aimed at minimizing the impact of unexpected events on University core activities. The lack of access to alternate teaching spaces at the University, for example, is among the things that will be looked at. Many types of events can occur, so part of the work involves identifying the likely scenarios and applying lessons learned from past events.

Why were there no flex spaces suggested or alternative classrooms offered? Why was the rescheduling of classes not centrally organized?

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to reschedule a large number of classes that take place in large classrooms within the campus. The University is working on having better swing space for classrooms, but the issue remains for now.

Beyond emergency management, the team that runs EOC also works on emergency preparedness. This includes developing mitigation measures aimed at minimizing the impact of unexpected events on University core activities. The lack of access to alternate teaching spaces at the University, for example, is among the things that will be looked at.

This kind of incident could happen again. Will the criteria used to decide whether the entire building will be closed vs closing off an affected area be transparent and made clear to building occupants?

Decisions of this kind are always made based on the information available at the time of the decision. As a guiding principle, if an affected area can easily be identified and isolated, a similar event would typically not lead to a full building closure.   

Information about testing

How did this asbestos testing work?

Three types of tests were deployed:

  • Bulk sampling: These tests consist of taking samples of building materials (e.g. walls or ceiling tiles) to verify whether they contain asbestos. We analyzed the materials that were damaged by the flooding incidents to help identify the potential risk of asbestos being released by these materials.
  • Wipe tests: Also called “swipe tests,” these involve wiping horizontal surfaces (desks, floors, etc.) to detect the presence of asbestos fibers and help guide our air-testing efforts. Wipe/swipe tests are not mandated by Quebec government regulators, nor are their findings sufficient to deem an area safe for use. They can, however, be helpful in determining whether asbestos is present in open areas (i.e. in a room, rather than contained in a wall). When wipe tests detect asbestos in open areas, the next step is typically cleaning and air-testing in those areas.
  • Air tests: An air test conducted to government specifications, and yielding results that meet provincial and McGill safety standards, can lead to the determination that an area is safe for occupants.

What were the air test results?

Test results for the North and South Blocks are posted below.


Date Area Pass/Fail

Feb. 22

North Block: 2nd Floor Ladies Washroom


Feb. 22

North Block: 2nd Floor Hall N2/15


Feb. 22

North Block: 2nd Floor Hall N2/7


Feb. 21

North Block: 2nd Floor Security Door Office Entry


Feb. 21

North Block: 2nd Floor Staircase


Feb. 21

North Block: 2nd Floor Elevator Entry


Feb. 22

North Block: 3rd Floor Elevator Common Area


Feb. 22

North Block: 3rd Floor Southwest Staircase


Feb. 22

North Block: 3rd Floor Northeast Staircase


Feb. 22

North Block: 3rd Floor Hall N3/3


Feb. 21

North Block: 4th Floor Elevator Common Area


Feb. 22

North Block: 4th Floor Hall N4/3


Feb. 28

South Block: 1st Floor 1 Hall 9


Feb. 28

South Block: 1st Floor 1 Hall 1


Feb. 28

South Block: 1st Floor 1 Hall 2


Feb. 28

South Block: 1st Floor S1/4 (Auditorium)


Feb. 28

South Block: 2nd Floor S1/3 (Auditorium)


Feb. 28

South Block: 2nd Floor 2 Hall 1


Are additional swipe tests needed to determine whether some areas should be cleaned again?

The final swipe tests yielded only trace amounts of asbestos almost entirely at the minimum threshold detectable by the testing laboratory, and were followed by an additional round of cleaning as an extra precaution. Since subsequent air tests confirmed that the building is safe as per Quebec government and McGill standards, no additional wipe testing is required.

What standard does McGill use for air testing?

For air tests to pass at McGill, the results must be under the threshold of 0.01 fibres per cubic centimetre. This is the same threshold dictated by the government after asbestos abatement work to ensure that a space is safe to re-open.   

Why are McGill’s standards more stringent than those of the provincial government?

McGill’s self-imposed threshold, applied as our safety standard across all University buildings, is a maximum of 0.01 fibres per cubic centimeter of air. This is the threshold used to ensure safe occupancy after work done in high-risk conditions due to the presence of asbestos. Outside of this kind of work, the regulatory threshold used in Quebec is 0.1 fibres per cubic centimeter of air. McGill prefers to always use the more stringent threshold of 0.01 fibres in order to ensure the highest possible degree of confidence in the safety of our spaces. Because we all learn, teach, work, study and socialize in the University’s buildings, it’s vital that we be – and feel – safe in them.

Why were wipe tests conducted with this flood and not in past floods? Air samples were the only tests required to ensure safe return in the past.

Wipe tests were used to guide our cleaning and further testing. This allowed us to determine areas affected by the flood and potential further contamination. 

Will regular testing continue, now that the building is open?

Yes. We will continue to conduct regular air tests in the Stewart Biology Building in the coming months. We have identified 24 locations across the eight floors of the building. The results of the air tests will be posted on the EHS website. If any tests results fall short of McGill’s standards, the context of that particular result will be evaluated and, if deemed necessary, the areas in question will be closed, cleaned and re-tested. As we will be doing extensive monitoring of air in the building, we will have more information that should allow us to safely isolate the affected portion of the building without having to close the complex. 

Will the asbestos database on the EHS website be more regularly updated? How do Stewart occupants access asbestos test records for the building?

The database is meant as one of the tools in the asbestos management protocols of the University. When any kind of intervention needs to be done (renovation, work) individuals in charge of the operation or its planning first check within the database (I) whether the area in which the intervention will take place is listed in the database and (ii) whether the building itself is noted as containing asbestos. If (I), then corresponding measures for work under asbestos conditions are taken; if (ii) but there is no indication around the specific area of work, local samples may need to be taken prior. 

The updating of the database has suffered from the shortage of staff we experienced in our EHS unit in recent years. Many more reports exist and are archived at EHS than are available in the online database, and we are working on eventually having them all available online. If not available in the database, the reports can be obtained from EHS. Future air test results will be posted on the EHS website.

Note that the asbestos database is housed on the myLab platform, which underwent an upgrade and migration, completed in mid-February 2023. 

Asbestos and health

Is asbestos dangerous in buildings?

Asbestos was used in construction in many structures built in Quebec between 1930 and 1990, according to the Government of Quebec. Asbestos is a health concern if the fibers are inhaled, that is, if they are present in the air. “Materials that contain asbestos and are in good condition do not release fibers into the air and are generally safe,” according to the government’s information.

What is the risk of health problems associated with asbestos?

According to the Government of Quebec’s information about asbestos and health, the “risk of someone having health problems associated with exposure to asbestos increases with the amount of asbestos fibers to which the person is exposed and the duration and frequency of the person’s exposure to asbestos fibers.” It also mentions that “Health problems associated with asbestos are rare in the general population”; they are more common in people who work in “asbestos mines,” “factories that manufacture parts containing asbestos” and the “construction and demolition industries.” This is because people in those jobs have a significantly higher chance of being exposed over a longer period of time and to higher concentrations.

Why are McGill’s PPE stocks so low?

A few building users have reported that they were unable to be fit-tested for entry during the closure, because of scarce supplies of PPE. Unfortunately, this is true. Due to industry supply issues and high PPE demand within our community, maintaining surplus inventory has proved challenging since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. As well, PPE expiration dates make it difficult to maintain stockpiles over time. That said, we are redoubling our efforts to locate reliable suppliers around the world, and to build sufficient stock to ensure we are better prepared in the future.

Communications about the closure

Why have we not heard more from the Faculty of Science?

The University’s Emergency Operations Centre is activated in situations like these. The Centre pulls together key expertise from staff across the McGill to deal with situations such as the one at the Stewart Biology Building. Once it is activated, it takes over to deal with the emergency, and that includes communications.

How will future situations be handled to address issues with communication (last minute announcements, not received by all affected individuals)?

We have heard issues about the communications and announcements. Part of the lessons learned here is the need to strengthen the lists we can use to warn people.

Renovation of the Stewart Biology Building

Has construction in the West block restarted and what is the timeline for completion?

Construction resumed on February 23 and we are at approximately 70% advancement for the last phase of the project, which is the interior fit-out. We should have a better idea of completion date soon. Meanwhile, we are actively planning the allocation of space.

When will construction in the North block start?

We continue to discuss funding for this project with the government. It is a major project with a cost of more than $150M. The government has authorized us to begin the planning phase (for which we also rely on government funds). The experience and knowledge coming out of the West block project will inform this planning.

What are short and medium-term solutions for the North block? We rely heavily on the building for teaching and research and will continue to do so after the West block opens. How can we ensure that the building is operable between now and when it is renovated?

The presence of asbestos in a building does not make a building inoperable. There are many buildings at McGill that contain asbestos and we have protocols in place to manage incidents that involve asbestos. Incidents such as the Feb. 5-6, 2023, flooding help us identify building areas that may require additional vigilance or systems components that may need closer monitoring. For example, in future extreme temperature events, we can add surveillance in more vulnerable areas. Also, the full renovation of the block does not exclude proceeding with smaller repairs as needed that can help us minimize the risks of such incidents occurring again or limiting their impact if they do occur again.

Why does it take so long for the renovations at Stewart Biology to be completed?

Renovation of the Stewart Biology Building is very complex. It had to be planned and executed one wing at a time, since it requires that the spaces be emptied and there is not a lot of swing space at McGill, especially when it comes to accommodating labs. Many factors can have an impact on the duration of a project, starting with:

  • Obtaining the necessary funding from the government.
  • Labour availability: In the past few years, we have suffered from the unprecedented labour shortage experienced in many sectors, including construction.
  • Surge in costs: The construction market has been overheated in the past few years and prices shot up to unexpected levels. As part of the West wing project, we had to completely cancel a call for tenders when the only two bids received were considerably higher than the planned budget. This delayed the project by many months.
  • Quality control: We may sometimes face delays caused by work that was not done correctly and has to be redone, or errors or omissions made in the design phase that need to be addressed.
  • Governance: If, for some reason, the call for tenders takes longer than expected, this in turn delays the approval by the Board, which can set us back by a couple of months further.
Back to top