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Leacock staff suffer sick building syndrome

Employees move out of sixth floor complaining of chest pains, numbness, and vomiting; two remain out of work

After ventilation problems in McGill’s Leacock building forced several people out of work earlier this year, professors and staff are still looking for answers to what made them gravely sick, and whether the building is safe.

According to administrators in McGill Facilities, Leacock has suffered from poor air quality and ventilation problems for many years. But the situation became urgent around April 30, when eight employees – most from the History department’s administrative office – reported symptoms including nausea, coughing, constrained breathing, burning in the throat, eyes, and nose, numbness in the mouth, and sore cheeks.

No factor has been positively identified as having caused the symptoms, but a number of theories were suggested – including the possibility that muriatic acid, a toxic and corrosive agent used that day to clean Montreal’s aqueducts north of campus, might have entered the building’s ventilation.

McGill requested that affected employees see doctors. When one employee, who requested anonymity, explained her symptoms, her doctor called the Poison Control Centre “to follow standard procedure.”

“It felt like my whole mouth was numb, like my teeth were falling out,” the employee said of her health condition in the first week of May, three days after problems were first reported.

“It was like I had this mouthful of metallic balls,” said another employee, who also asked to remain anonymous. “By the end of the day, I was slurring my words. I felt stoned. I threw up at the end of the day.”

One employee left work for ten weeks. Two staff members have been temporarily relocated to the Ferrier building. One remained on medication to treat a persistent respiratory problem following the incident.

Another employee who stayed in the office through early May reportedly noticed her asthmatic condition worsen, and left work on semi-permanent sick leave. A sessional lecturer working on the fourth floor also left work sick after the incident – though it was also never determined if symptoms were related. Both have not yet returned to work.

Following the incident, a building assessment conducted by McGill Facilities discovered that the building’s chillers – machines used to cool in-coming air – had been removed earlier in April. Their removal could have sent a metallic odor through the vents.

Further, the assessment found that both humidifiers in the building were not functioning, resulting in humidity levels as low as ten per cent – below Quebec building codes’ minimum of 20 per cent and far below the recommended minimum of 40 per cent.

One humidifier had been known to be malfunctioning for up to a year. In fact, the same employees who fell sick in the spring had also reported trouble breathing and dry air to the Health and Safety Office in fall of 2007.

Those affected said that their symptoms suggested chemical exposure had occurred.

“Something permeated the building. Our symptoms pointed to some chemical burn or chemical exposure, and it had to have been diluted,” an employee said.

However, the University’s assessment failed to prove that any one factor – muriatic acid, the chillers’ removal, or the malfunctioning humidifiers – caused specific health concerns in the spring, explained Jim Nicell, Associate Vice-Principal (University Services).

“We realize that people are making these statements, and people feel this is having an effect,” Nicell said. “But we can’t connect reactions reported by individuals with any specific event.”

The employees filed complaints with Quebec’s Commission de sécurité et santé du travail (CSST). But since causality had not been determined, and some employees had pre-existing health conditions including asthma and renitis – a condition making someone sensitive to barometric and air quality changes – the claim was rejected.

A spokesperson for the CSST said she could not discuss the case due to confidentiality reasons, but added that between 2005 and 2006 the office had investigated approximately 500 air-quality complaints in workplaces.

The University acted quickly to address the concerns. All of the vents in Leacock were changed over the summer – though it was later discovered that the new vents blocked fresh air from entering, and were later removed.

McGill also replaced one of the broken humidifiers and will be installing the second within weeks, according to Nicell.

The building’s entire ventilation system will be replaced this winter, likely starting in February, at a cost of $850,000.

Still, affected employees want to know exactly what happened to make them sick the week following April 30.

“I don’t know what it’s going to take to find out what we were exposed to that day,” an employee said.

The CSST only intervenes in cases when no action is undertaken in the workplace to rectify a problem, so McGill’s commitment to repairs in Leacock means employees will not likely find support for another external investigation.

Despite the apparent gravity of the health concerns, some workers say McGill’s non-academic staff union, MUNACA, did not do enough to support the employees during their counsel with the Univerisity.

Affected employees said that MUNANCA’s President, Maria Ruocco, told them that complaints from just five employees in a building of 200 were insufficient for MUNACA to mobilize.

“MUNACA is not an aggressive union. They could have made more noise,” said an employee. “I don’t know how unions work, but I would have taken it directly to Heather [Munroe-Blum, the principal]’s office and said, ‘We have a problem here. People are sick.’”

Ruocco said that her office stayed in close touch with the Health and Safety Office, and would be following up with the CSST once the last humidifier is installed this month.

“Our job was to get them out of there,” she said, adding, “The problem was being rectified.”

She also said that she would contact Legal Counsel to see “what else could be done for them.” But she also admitted that she had not been in touch with the affected employees in at least a month.

The affected employees stressed that McGill has acted in good faith to move forward with repairs. Yet, they say, they still have questions about the communication mechanisms used to address health and safety on campus.

“Our biggest insult: Why won’t you tell us what the hell is going on?” the employee Said. “They have to admit that McGill is old and crumbling – they should reassure us that bricks won’t fall on our heads, that the air you breathe is going to be good. If not, we have to know.”

Nicell stressed that because causality was never established, McGill decided against sending a mass email to Leacock occupants about the situation.

“We were stuck between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “Is it wise to tell everybody if you don’t have evidence?”

Neither MUNACA nor the History Department emailed staff or faculty members concerning the problems as well.

Workers from Leacock, Facilities, and Human Resources have formed a new working group to ensure that communication is improved. Louise Savard, Director of University Safety and the chair of the group, acknowledged that communication between the administration, the union, and workers had been insufficient.

“To me the problem is there has hardly been any communication of what’s been going on to the people who work and study in that building,” Savard said.

Savard stressed that the McGill Health and Safety case was not closed, and the work group would focus on monitoring the repairs through the winter.

This is not the first time McGill’s deferred maintenance troubles have possibly triggered health troubles. Problems in McGill’s McIntyre Building were brought to light in 2002, when a ventilation malfunction on the 13th floor caused students and professors to faint and vomit.

Further, three doctors working in the building during the 1990s were diagnosed with leukemia, and in 2003 one of these doctors died. He alleged that he fell ill due to poor ventilation in the building.

McGill currently has a list of 1,570 deferred maintenance projects, mostly due to underfunding from the Quebec government. But an injection of funds announced last year means McGill has been given $38-million this year, $28.5-million next year, and $25-million for each year following to address the list of deferred maintenance projects.

This summer it began intensive construction on the electrical and gas tunnel, in danger of collapsing because it is over 100 years old. The Otto Maas Chemistry building’s ventilation system had been next on the list.

“We’re constantly trying to play catch-up on this deferred maintenance,” Nicell said.

Despite the difficulty establishing causality in the Leacock incident, Nicell said that the symptoms described by some employees would correspond to what is known as “sick building syndrome,” a combination of ailments associated with poor air quality or other conditions in buildings.

“Even during the assessment we recognized [Leacock] is not in good shape,” Nicell said.

Even though several people will not return to work in the building, neither Nicell or the Dean of Arts Christopher Manfredi thought that there were any eminent health concerns in the building.

Still, According to Catherine LeGrand, the chair of the department of History, about five people in Leacock say they cannot work in the building for more than a few hours at a time due to chronic headaches and respiratory troubles.

“They’re like the canary in the coal mine,” LeGrand said.