January 13, 2006

I-House fumes have yet to be remedied by management

International House (I-House) administrators have taken no action despite tenants’ complaints since late last October of nausea, headaches, and eye irritation due to “noxious fumes” emanating from radiators, according to residents Malou Innocent and Robert Wood.

The radiators were sandblasted and repainted over the summer as part of a $27 million renovation. When the heating was turned on earlier in fall quarter, residents noticed fumes associated with the radiators that caused unpleasant physical symptoms, and the University’s Office of Safety and Environmental Affairs was notified.

Residents had complained that they had to open their windows in the cold weather and were not able to study in their rooms. One resident prematurely terminated his contract with I-House after being forced to sleep on a cot in the basement to avoid the fumes.

According to a survey conducted by Innocent, the Residents’ Council tribune, at least 26 residents are still affected negatively by the fumes with physical symptoms including headaches, “difficulty breathing,” nausea, and eye and nose irritation. Furthermore, 14 residents have had to “vacate” their rooms “to avoid exposure to the odor or fumes.”

Innocent said she felt the I-House administration was being dismissive of the issue. “We’re not getting any straight answers at all,” she said. “Our quality of life is being impaired. I don’t understand why they’re not taking this seriously.”

Brian Davis, director of finance and administration at I-House, said he disagreed. “I can assure you that it’s certainly not something we’re taking lightly,” he said. “Certainly we’ve tried to accommodate residents that have expressed complaints as we could.” He added that he had not received any radiator-related complaints since late October.

According to Todd Huffer, industrial hygienist at the safety office, two “indoor air quality assessments” were conducted in I-House rooms, both of which were run over an eight-hour period of time and found “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs) to be “well below” exposure limits imposed by the federal government.

“We are glad to know that, based on the safety report, a hazardous condition does not appear to exist,” Davis added.

But residents had another take on the report. “The study was absolute garbage,” said Robert Wood, I-House resident. “We live here. We spend a lot more than eight hours in our rooms. Even when a chemical is within threshold levels, it doesn’t mean it’s safe.”

He added that there could be as many as 2 million kinds of VOCs. “Testing for VOCs is like saying, I’m going to eat some food. We don’t know what they’ve tested for. They’re not telling us.”

Wood, who has asthma, said he had to seal off a section of his room with plaster and tape because the fumes from the radiators gave him asthma attacks.

Wood said he also felt the I-House administration was “not forthcoming” about the situation. “I asked Bill Miller [facilities manager of I-House] five times for the name of the paint, the material safety data sheet, and each time he had an excuse.” Wood added that he only obtained the name of the paint when he talked to construction workers in I-House.

“Bill McCartney [director of I-House] said there [were] no lead paints on the radiators,” Wood said. “He was doing damage control.” Wood said he sent paint chips to an independent laboratory, whose analysis showed significant lead content in the paint.

Steve Beaudoin, director of the safety office, said they had not made any recommendations to the I-House administration. “The method of dealing with this will be left to International House,” he said. “We’re not aware of any action they’ve planned.”

When asked, however, Davis was unable to specify any action the I-House administration had taken to alleviate residents’ discomfort in their rooms.

Innocent said that no action had been taken by the administration, and that it had refused to provide space heaters to the residents on the grounds that they were fire hazards.

But Beaudoin cautioned that the federal regulation only takes into consideration healthy individuals, and not “sensitized individuals,” or people who might have asthma.

“That’s the huge caveat [the I-House administration is] arguing for,” Innocent said. “They’re saying, legally this won’t cause any problem. But there are physical ailments that are being produced. We can smell it. It’s an irritant.”

Woods said he didn’t anticipate a resolution to the problem in the near future. “Basically they just want to bury the problem,” he said. “They just want us to shut up and take it.”