Concern about exposure to volatile organic compounds precautionary: MUN

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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, says 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 others 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, Grenfell was 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 odour and the vapours 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, said Sturge.

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 midday 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 is 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. 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.

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.

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 acknowledge that there certainly was an exposure, people experienced symptoms that are consistent with exposure to volatile organic compounds.”

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

Organizations: Memorial University Faculty Association

Geographic location: Western Star

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  • george p b
    January 11, 2014 - 10:54

    I call BS on David Sturge. This is a politician speaking--"quality levels reached hazardous last fall..but there were lessons learned to make for better practices...." As health and safety manager, he should have been on top of this . First, he should have released the names of the specific VOCs--by law they are on the label. Then he should have urged people to seek medical help ASAP. Finally, finding leaks in a HVAC system is straight forward. Fixing these leaks may be more difficult, but not exactly brain surgery. Corner Brook has reputable contractors. .... A more serious issue is just how this came about--the faulty HVAC system. When was last inspection by department of health? When was the HVAC system last shown to be in compliance??? I wish the star would do some investigative reporting & get to the bottom of this mess...