It served the communities in and around Brown County, Wisconsin for over a century, but the Brown County Mental Health Center, or BCMHC, is now being examined from all angles by county officials to try to determine if its demolition is the only way to resolve the asbestos problems the historic building represents.
The Center, located at 2900 Saint Anthony Drive in Green Bay, was, during its heyday, home to three elder care units, two developmentally disabled adult units, an adult psychiatric care unit and a juvenile psychiatric unit, as well as outpatient clinics for substance abuse, mental health evaluations and emergency care.
In all, 150 residents and an estimated 12,000 outpatients per year received treatment in the 123-year old building, but Pat Evans, Brown County Human Services Committee chairman, believes the only way to make the property safe is to take it down: renovation and repurposing are not solutions, given the heritage of asbestos inside its walls.
As with all buildings dating to the latter part of the 19th century or the early part of the 20th century, the BCMHC contains large amounts of asbestos, in the boiler insulation and boiler pipe wrap, as well as in wall insulation, ceiling insulation and soundproofing, floor tiles and mastics, and even the insulative caulk installed around wind and door frames.
Asbestos, which began to decline in use in the late 1970s in America as manufacturers, health officials and regulators started to recognize its dangers – and finally restricted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1989 to one percent of product or less – is the single known cause of a fairly uncommon but highly lethal form of cancer known as mesothelioma.
Occurring in more than 50 percent of cases as pleural mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer, the disease lies dormant for up to five decades before producing symptoms serious enough to send victims to a doctor.
Once diagnosed, most patients are given about a year to live. This is because the amount of damage incurred during the long dormancy period leaves most individuals untreatable by conventional cancer methods. Even in those cases where oncologists prescribe surgery and radiation, or chemotherapy, such treatments seldom add more than a few months to patients’ lives.
In fact, the best hope for mesothelioma is early diagnosis – a hope now being fulfilled by pleural fluid tests which can reportedly pinpoint mesothelioma, even in its very early stages, through protein markers.
Demolition of the BCMHC would not seriously impact area residents, because in October of 2009 – after years of wrangling over the budget and confronting charges of improper and incomplete patient treatment – Brown County built a new mental health center, the $21-million Community Treatment Center at 3150 Gershwin Drive
While smaller than the BCMHC, this LEED-certified center includes a 63-bed nursing home, a fully funded adult and adolescent psychiatric unit, and an outpatient clinic.
Evans has conceded that the county’s liability for the old hospital would drop to zero once the asbestos is removed and the building demolished. The cost to do this is estimated at close to $1 million, but as County Executive Tom Hinz points out, it’s also costing money to do nothing, and an empty lot would at least be saleable, if a developer could be found for the property.
Sources: Green Bay Press Gazette