Air quality questioned


Faculty members blame miscommunication, lack of knowledge in fixing workplace environment problems.

Professors and students leave Scobey Hall and the basement of Wagner Hall sometimes feeling sicker than when they entered.

SDSU Faculty Senate members hope to improve awareness of this threat and to revamp a policy to improve communication about unsafe work environments. This initiative comes after complaints of poor conditions and sightings of mold in rooms throughout Scobey Hall.

Last week, the senate dedicated a chunk of its agenda to an open discussion on an issue that English professor and Senate Vice President Michael Keller said, “is serious enough that we shouldn’t just dawdle with it.”

Some faculty members with offices in Scobey Hall believe the building’s mold and mildew problems present a high potential for allergic reactions and several respiratory problems. Individuals have varying susceptibility to the effects of mold buildup, but Keller heard several informal complaints of deteriorating health from people in the building upon investigating the severity of the issue.

“I was quite stunned actually, to hear from all the people that said ‘I have all these health problems, I’m going to the doctor,’” Keller said.

SDSU’s current procedure for filing formal complaints on environmental safety in buildings on campus takes multiple steps. Campus Facilities and Services take complaints, but the process only finalizes after filing the complaint to the Human Resources department. The method “veers off into two different ways,” says Faculty Senate President Robert Watrel.

Some staff members simply do not know the proper filing procedure. Watrel said the webpage to list a complaint contains a small link, “not purposely hidden, but it’s not in a very obvious spot.”

Other institutions use programs garnered specifically towards air quality safety in campus buildings. At NDSU, an air quality program receives complaints or concerns with odors or potential moisture and mold problems. The program has its own website.

Mike Borr, an associate director for Environmental Health and Safety at NDSU, said the program predates his arrival to the university six years ago.

“It came about, as I understand it, based on issues that we experienced in buildings similar to SDSU’s,” Borr said.

The program hears comments or complaints and directs the filer to its website. Borr said persons in the Environmental Health and Safety department will visit the faculty member personally. From there, they evaluate how widespread the problem appears, and try taking action to resolve any issue with air safety. Some air problems will undergo a week or two of data gathering while others are, “tracked down immediately,” he said.

“It has helped some, but it has not cured every problem,” Borr said.

Problems in Scobey

Improvements and repairs to Scobey Hall happen periodically since its construction in 1940. In the mid-‘70s, the building changed from a residence hall to a faculty office building, with some rooms transformed into classrooms. In that time, the building received a new roof, an air conditioning unit and new plumbing, among other things.

Robert Burns, a retired distinguished professor and former dean of the Honors College, had an office in Scobey Hall for decades before his retirement in 2008. Burns witnessed faulty bathrooms that leaked feces onto the floor, malfunctioning heating and said the building went a long time without running hot water.

Keller said the current state of Scobey Hall — particularly the bottom level — has been recommended to close two classrooms in the basement due to poor indoor air quality.

It’s an issue that Burns said, if history holds up, will be handled accordingly.

“The university’s made every effort to address these problems,” Burns said. “We have to realize the building is 70-years-old. It’s aging, and there have been issues.”

SDSU hired INTEK, a Sioux Falls-based cleaning and restoration business, last summer to scrub Scobey Hall of accumulating mildew and other dusts. The cleaning was scheduled after an examination determined a need for special cleaning. Dean Kattelmann, assistant vice president of Facilities and Services, said the company did an air inspection afterwards and declared the air safe.

New windows for Scobey Hall are in the works, Kattelmann said, and could potentially be finished in 2012.

Faculty and students face effects

Some staff members faced a score of health problems while working in the areas believed to have a mildew buildup. Professor and former Nursing Department Head Marlys Bohn worked in the offices formerly located in room 131 on the bottom level of Wagner Hall. She said her personal health deteriorated rapidly during her time in the office.

Bohn pointed out one circumstance she believes sparked several health issues over approximately one year in Wagner Halls’ bottom floor. She removed a floor mat around her desk for cleaning crews that scheduled to wax the building’s floors that night.

“I broke the seal on something that was toxic,” she said. “I don’t know what it was. I immediately lost my voice and in time, started losing my hair.”

Bohn left the offices for three weeks with another issue, and said her hair grew back in that time.

Three secretaries also developed health problems over the same time span.

“It seemed like an obvious cause-and-effect thing,” Bohn said. “I would say my experience was a little bit like banging my head against the wall, because everyone I talked to said it wasn’t their issue.”

“We’re looking at things that are really bad in some of our buildings.”

Katie Ishol, a fifth-year English student, has class six hours per week in the bottom floor of Scobey Hall. Last month, Ishol said she contracted a “really bad head cold” and missed a week of school.

Ishol found out about problems with mold in that area of the building during a linguistics class with Doctor John Taylor and noticed her symptoms worsening each time she went to those specific classrooms.

“My headaches got worse, my cough was getting much worse,” Ishol said. “It was so bad that I would have to leave the classroom.”

Element of fear

Keller believes some of the problems with SDSU’s communication stem from scared faculty members unwilling to voice their concerns because of fear of reprisal from higher level figures in South Dakota state government. Keller said this fear does not apply to current administrators on campus.

“People were afraid to register formal complaints,” Keller said. “People are simply afraid that by registering a complaint, somehow, someone’s going to come after them … I assume that this is not the case.”

Provost Laurie Nichols said the truest way of curing confusion with any concurrent workplace hazard rests in amending a clearer proposal. Nichols researched other university protocols from around the area regarding air safety – all of which had programs centered on environmental safety.

“We’re behind the times,” Nichols said. “We need it.”

To that end, Keller said he and others see a history on campus “where they’re going to address a situation, and the situation (does) not get addressed.”

A comprehensive review of mold in buildings on campus has not been conducted. Scobey Hall and the basement of Wagner Hall are considered the chief points of concern and the need for increased awareness and a better air quality policy. Plans for a new social sciences building are in development and would remove occupants from Scobey Hall permanently.

“I think with time as this talk with safety and security gets brought up, the whole environmental safety and security will move under it,” Nichols said. “We do need an indoor air quality and mold policy.”