Concern about long-term effects of exposure to volatile organic compounds precautionary: Memorial

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Cory Hurley
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David Sturge, Memorial University Grenfell Campus' health and safety manager, speaks about the exposure of fumes experienced during the gymnasium renovations last fall.

CORNER BROOK  Memorial University acted immediately when air quality levels reached hazardous last fall, according to its health and safety manager, but there were lessons learned to make for better practices.

David Sturge was reacting to reports that some faculty, staff and other people from the area were ill after being exposed to fumes expelled during renovations to the gymnasium floor at the Grenfell Campus. This happened on two occasions — once in October during the initial work and again in November when it resumed.

Memorial hired a contractor to replace the gym floor as part of the ongoing growth and expansion at the west coast university campus. He said strict health and safety protocols were approved and followed, however, they were also prepared to react in case anything did go wrong.

“We were quite excited, we thought everything was in place,” he said. “It was good timeframe to have the gym available for students, lots of reassurance from the contractor themselves — that everything would go well, that the products they were using were safe, low odor, and the vapors wouldn’t be of concern.”

As soon as the air quality issues were detected, the facility was evacuated, signs went up, and a person was put in place to monitor the area. People in the pool, change rooms, and surrounding areas experienced symptoms.

The project was started on a Friday evening of mid-term break, and there was not a problem until about mid-day Saturday.

When the project resumed in November, with extra precautionary measures in place, again Sturge said they were confident there would be no problems. Unfortunately, there was exposure through the outside ventilation this time.

Sturge said Memorial had confidence in the contractor, an experienced and professional company. He said it is not about placing blame now, but they are conducting an assessment of the entire process — including the technical aspects of the ventilation, the products used, and how it happened. It is too early to determine whether what exactly went wrong or if there was particular fault, he said.

The Memorial University Faculty Association has concerns about the exposure happening, but also the lack of communication and response from the university and the delay in availability of the air quality report.

Sturge said the latter is a labour relations issue and would not comment on it. However, he said, while there are opportunities to learn and improve following these incidents, that Memorial reacted promptly and notified people of what happened.

He said in no way did administration try to duck the issue or avoid any negative public reaction.

“The health and safety of our students, the employees, the general public is of the highest concern,” he said.

Extra resources were brought in from the St. John’s campus, he said. The public notice issued in The Western Star’s classified section Dec. 24 was untimely, he acknowledged, but was issued as soon as approval was granted.

“The air quality consultant continued with testing, multiple times, to ensure the air quality was safe,” Sturge said. “We took those concerns very seriously, communicated with all individuals involved as best we could.

“Again, looking back, was there opportunities for improvement? Yes, there certainly was, and we will consider those in the overall assessment.”

Meanwhile, Sheila Miller, Memorial’s director of health and safety, said the level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were indeed extremely high. However, she said the acute exposure to these chemicals would not have long-term effects, and the symptoms of headaches, dizziness and nausea would have passed.

However, Memorial is alerting people to contact their physician or the university’s occupational health and safety nurse if they experienced those symptoms after being at Grenfell during those times.

“I want people not to be concerned,” Miller said. “We want to knowledge that there certainly was an exposure, people experienced symptoms that are consistent with exposure to volatile organic compounds.”

She likened the exposure to the volatile organic compounds to that of those in a bottle of nail polish removal. After a while, she said, once could experience such symptoms,but it would go away afterwards.

She also said the gymnasium — which is still not in use, but should be soon — and surrounding area is safe. There is still an odor present from the work, but the volatile organic compounds are non-existent, she said. Air quality tests are continuing to be done to ensure that.

People can visit http://www.mun.ca/health_safety/Grenfell_Campus.php for air quality reports or information on how to contact Grenfell if you have experienced related symptoms.

Organizations: Memorial University Faculty Association

Geographic location: Western Star

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