There’s something in the air at University of Hawaii Manoa’s St. John Plant Laboratory Complex — and if you ask some of the employees there, an outdated ventilation system is to blame.

Workers and students have complained of lightheadedness, scratchy throats and eyes, headaches and fatigue that they blame on airborne fumes and odors.

Joe DeFrank, a weed science specialist in the Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Science, has worked at St. John since 1983 and said he smelled strong odors in his laboratory two to five times per year. DeFrank became so frustrated that he relocated to a UH facility away from the main campus to conduct his research. He still has an office and lab in St. John, but no longer uses them regularly.

“In that building, we’re constantly breathing a witches’ brew of God knows what chemicals,” DeFrank said.

He’s so worried about his level of exposure that he’s scheduled a blood test to check on his liver and kidneys. Still, he said some of his colleagues consider the odors “business as usual.”

UH manoa Harold St. John Plant Science Laboratory building, 5th floor hallway. 7 april 2016.
St. John was originally home to the botany, horticulture, plant pathology and plant physiology departments. Now organic chemistry researchers experiment in the building, too. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Andy Kaufman, an associate professor and landscape specialist in the same department, said the odors can be so intense that he’s gotten headaches and felt fatigued. He said others in his lab have had similar symptoms, but people mostly complain about the stench.

The university acknowledges that the building’s air duct system is outmoded, but says the problem stems at least partially from people improperly using their fume hoods, devices enclosed on five sides that limit the spread of fumes.

The six-story structure housing labs, classrooms and offices was built in 1970. About 150 people work there, in addition to the students passing through.

It’s just one example of decrepit facilities on the Manoa campus. State lawmakers frequently criticize UH’s strategy for dealing with a deferred maintenance backlog now estimated at $503 million.

“The people at St. John’s, and the people at Snyder (and other buildings with high deferred maintenance), they all deserve better and they all have legitimate concerns.” — UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl

St. John’s deferred maintenance backlog alone is estimated at $16.3 million —the highest of any single building, according to a 2015 report conducted by Sightlines, a national organization focused on management of education facilities. The report analyzed deferred maintenance costs and was referenced in the state’s supplemental budget.

Sightlines said St. John needed repairs to its elevator, air conditioning, electrical, plumbing and fire systems.

A long-term plan created by UH Manoa’s facilities office identified Manoa’s 10 buildings most in need of repair and St. John was No. 10 on that list. At the top was Snyder Hall, another outdated laboratory facility that UH wants to rebuild on a different site.

“Our responsibility is to provide students with 21st century learning facilities. And we have failed on that front,” said UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl. “I’ve been to St. John’s. It’s like stepping back in time … It’s insane. You walk into that lobby, you’re like ‘Holy smokes, hello 1977.’ And it’s the Hyatt Resort compared to Snyder Hall.”

Although UH acknowledges St. John is old, which contributes to the odors wafting through the building, Meisenzahl said the Environmental Health and Safety Office investigates all complaints and consults those at the scene, but has not found any indication there have been are health hazards.

It’s not a sick building, Meisenzahl said.

That’s not a unanimous opinion.

‘I Have A Family … It’s Not Fun’

In St. John, all windows are sealed, so opening them to dissipate fumes isn’t an option, Kaufman said. To eliminate odors, he installed charcoal filters over all his air vents after seeing another colleague in the building use them.

Kaufman says the filters help, but odors persist. Sometimes when he opens the door to his lab, Kaufman has noticed a ripple effect as ceiling tiles lift up in reaction to the change in air pressure.

Just last month, Kaufman said he could smell chemicals in his first-floor lab and in the bathroom. Once, he smelled chemicals in his lab for three days in a row, which caused him to have headaches.

“Who wouldn’t be (concerned for their health)? I have a family, a small child,” he said. “It’s not fun.”

Many employees with second- and third-floor offices report smelling roasting coffee beans from a coffee researcher’s first-floor office. While the aroma of coffee may not be a problem, employees said they worry about stronger chemical scents, or even what they may not be able to smell that passes through the vents.

One faculty member in St. John's has started keeping track of the dates he smells odors from other labs.
One faculty member in St. John has started keeping track of the dates he smells odors from other labs. Courtney Teague/Civil Beat

DeFrank said he entered his second-floor lab one day in September 2014 to find it coated in dust from first-floor bathroom renovations. He believes the dust — which he said irritated his throat and hindered his breathing — was carried through the ventilation system and fell through cracks in the ceiling tiles. After he notified campus officials, an investigation by UH Manoa’s EHSO resulted in replaced ceiling tiles and a full room cleaning.

DeFrank requested the dust be tested, and results showed it contained a small amount of crystalline silica (a known lung hazard) that did not exceed the legally permissible limit, according to a test conducted by a hazardous material testing company, White Environmental Consultants Inc.

“I’m disappointed that I work for a place where your health and well being is trivialized.” — Joe DeFrank

The next month, DeFrank again found his lab coated in dust from construction and notified EHSO, which he said again cleaned the affected labs.

An email provided by DeFrank shows that Thomas Lim, systems director of the  College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Office of Planning and Management, asked the EHSO and the Facilities Management Office to better evaluate “the recent series of introductions of the (dust containing silica) from the restroom renovation project, as well as past (historical) fume penetration from the lab below … The occupant is concerned of repeated exposures that may have respiratory problems to his health.”

Joe DeFrank drew the date into the dust the first time he found his lab coated in it.
Joe DeFrank drew the date into the dust the first time he found his lab coated in it. Joe DeFrank

Other employees in the building recall mushrooms growing on walls from leaking air conditioner fluid and algae on the baseboards — and one faculty member spoke of a pregnant graduate student who used to immediately evacuate the building whenever she smelled an odor.

DeFrank recalled one graduate student who described a neighboring room as the “office to hell” because it frequently reeked of sulfuric acid.

“It’s a pretty crummy way to run a university, especially when people’s health is at risk,” DeFrank said. “I’m disappointed that I work for a place where your health and well being is trivialized. And when you complain about it, you’re an outsider … and (UH is) gonna ignore you now.”

DeFrank and Kaufman said that when they’ve called UH representatives to complain about odors, the smell frequently has dissipated by the time an EHSO representative arrives at the lab. They said EHSO workers usually open outside doors and air out the rooms.

One of UH’s fixes for addressing the ventilation problems in DeFrank’s lab was to close off his exhaust vents to try and prevent anything from entering the lab. DeFrank felt this was inadequate because the air couldn’t circulate as quickly, and he believes some substances come through unsealed ceiling tiles.

After lifting up a ceiling tile, he found some of his vents weren’t ducted — channeled through a tube — to prevent air flowing throughout open ceiling space. This is now standard, according to the current building code and the U.S. Department of Energy-certified Berkeley lab.

UH manoa Harold St. John Plant Science Laboratory building exhaust vent. 31 march 2016.
A return air vent at the bottom of the photo doesn’t have a fixture around it — like the duct above, to funnel air flow. Courtney Teague/Civil Beat

After exposure to fumes in his lab in November 2015, DeFrank said he became disoriented, could detect a chemical taste in his saliva and left the building for fresh air. He spent the next two hours spitting into a cup trying to get the taste out of his mouth and expel the chemical from his body

When DeFrank alerted CTAHR Health and Safety Specialist Mark Burch about his exposure, Burch investigated his complaint and found someone in the building failed to use their fume hood properly, according to an email provided by DeFrank. Burch confirmed the chemical DeFrank had been exposed to was dimethylformamide — a toxin that at high levels can be hazardous to the liver.

It was that incident that prompted DeFrank to move his research to the Magoon Research Station, a UH facility located farther up in the Manoa Valley, in November 2015.

Not long after that, a colleague told DeFrank that the entire third floor of St. John had been evacuated because of a pervasive cleaning solvent smell.

On Feb. 10, DeFrank sent a memo to Reed Dasenbrock, vice chancellor for academic affairs, voicing his concerns about the building’s ventilation issues. DeFrank wrote that he hoped to move back to his St. John lab if the “workplace air contamination problem” was addressed. He said he has not yet heard back.

Dasenbrock, Burch and CTAHR Dean Maria Gallo declined to comment personally for this report, but instead provided information through Meisenzahl, who also said he was speaking for the EHSO.

Plans To Improve Air Flow

Campus lab workers are trained annually, but UH will need to remind workers to use their fume hoods properly to decrease odors at St. John, Meisenzahl said. He said even in labs more modern than St. John’s, people may still notice smells from other labs if fume hoods aren’t used properly — older building designs only make odors more apparent.

Meisenzahl said UH officials have been responsive to DeFrank’s complaints, but said it’s been a “process of elimination” for campus safety office workers to find a feasible solution.

While DeFrank said he hasn’t heard back about the memo he sent to Dasenbrock, Meisenzahl confirmed the memo was received. He said Dasenbrock has been aware of ongoing issues at St. John and has asked other faculty members about the situation.

UH has plans to improve the fans in St. John’s in order to increase air flow and improve pressurization, Meisenzahl said. If the air in rooms can be replaced at a quicker rate, he said the change “should help a lot.” If it doesn’t, he said, UH will re-evaluate the problem.

As for the unducted vents, Meisenzahl said those are known as return air vents, which are part of the air conditioning system and lead to the common airspace above the ceiling tiles, and are ducted in newer building designs. From there, the air is returned to the air conditioning unit and passed back through vents.

Brand new labs would be designed differently and ducting those vents would be an improvement, Meisenzahl said. But he said ducting all return air vents in Snyder Hall would cost at least $10 million.

Meisenzahl also said that some people’s olfactory systems are more sensitive, which could explain why some in the building have had stronger reactions than others.

UH manoa Harold St. John Plant Science Laboratory building, 6th floor. 7 april 2016.
There are plans afoot to improve the air flow and pressurization at St. John. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In recent years, the philosophy behind deferred maintenance has evolved, Meisenzahl said. Now, UH is looking to sign fewer “band-aid contracts” and think long-term about whether a building may need to be torn down instead of renovated.

To reduce the backlog, Meisenzahl said UH has proposed a 2 percent tuition increase, which will play out over three years, and help raise the $80 million needed per year to address the backlog.

While the UH Board of Regents requested $130 million for facility improvements this year, he said UH was granted $60 million in the governor’s budget.

“The fact of the matter is that we have to get better,” Meisenzahl said. “And the people at St. John’s, and the people at Snyder (and other buildings with high deferred maintenance), they all deserve better and they all have legitimate concerns.”

At a CTAHR faculty senate meeting last week, DeFrank talked about the problems at St. John — and earned a few uneasy chuckles when he mentioned EHSO had shut some of his vents in hopes of stopping odors from reaching his lab.

Until that meeting, DeFrank had primarily spoken directly with EHSO and campus facility employees.

Faculty Senate Chairman Rajesh Jha said DeFrank’s experiences were a “very serious issue” during the meeting. Jha said he would like a UH facilities expert at the next meeting so the CTAHR faculty senate could discuss St. John.

Though Jha declined to comment immediately after the meeting about DeFrank’s experience without more information, the department chairman said he hoped to start a dialogue about possible problems in St. John.

“I’m very concerned about anything that affects our health or work environment,” Jha said.

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