Asbestos contamination at the Paris university campus of Jussieu requires Pounds 100 million to fix and despite official recognition of the urgency, the French government is dragging its feet.
Jussieu, home to the Paris VI and Paris VII universities, is thought to be the largest premises in the world with asbestos contamination. Over 50,000 students and staff work in its 400,000 square metre premises, over half of which are contaminated. The removal of the asbestos poses problems of unparalleled complexity because the universities must continue functioning.
An official report last November called for the urgent removal of asbestos and put the total cost at Fr880,000. "I think some amounts have been underestimated and that up to one billion francs will be needed," said Jean Lemerle, vice president of Paris VI University.
"The actual removal of the asbestos will cost an estimated Fr300,000. Far greater sums are required for the removal of laboratories and teaching rooms, rental of temporary premises, the complete rewiring of the site and for installing new anti-inflammatory material," he added.
Answering a question in parliament last month over the delay, education minister Francois Bayrou said decisions could be expected in about three months.
Mathematics lecturer Michel Parigot, who chairs the Jussieu anti-asbestos committee, believes there has still been no go-ahead from the ministry of finance for committing the huge sum required.
"Each time we go to the education ministry, we are told the political will is there, but no decisions are taken. Even if we get the go-ahead now and start the preliminary stages and issue tenders, it will be a year before the work is under way."
The report estimates decontamination and renovation will take three years. Meanwhile campus life is often paralysed. "Even a water leak cannot be dealt with like in a normal building," said Mr Lemerle.
The anti-asbestos committee began campaigning 18 months ago. Special safety measures to isolate maintenance and repair work were only introduced a year ago and are still not always respected. "When a wall is brushed down before painting, it releases 1,000 asbestos fibres per litre of air and when an air vent is replaced, 13,000 fibres per litre have been recorded," said Mr Parigot. "Just a week ago, repair work had to be halted because it was showering asbestos down onto the offices below.
"The cost of respecting safety measures can be so prohibitive, we simply cannot afford it." For example new cables for computers and other equipment cannot be pulled through the false ceilings of corridors full of asbestos dust.
When the decontamination work finally starts, the universities will be faced with a greater dilemma as there are no available premises nearby. "We really need to look for premises now, but first we need to know how much money we will get and what scale of work has been decided," said Mr Lemerle.