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Guest: Negative report against chem department erroneous

BY DANIEL ROSTON - GUEST OPINION | DECEMBER 03, 2009 7:30 AM

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The recent report on the health situation in the chemistry building (Daily Iowan, Nov. 19</a>) was negligent in its failure to assess the response of those in the chemistry department who are afflicted with health problems.

The published report by the UI task force is offensive in its suggestion that chemistry department personnel are to blame for their health problems. Any reasonable look at the situation shows how naïve that conclusion is. The report primarily cited lapses in lab safety as the source of health problems, but a number of people who have reported health problems do not work in labs.

The task force’s findings that dry sink traps were a potential source of vapor contamination in labs was a compelling finding, but it failed to explain the frequent smell of fumes in hallways and offices, which have no sinks.

Most of the chemistry-department personnel with firsthand knowledge of the situation believe that the air circulation system is to blame for the problems. The renovations to the building have been characteristically sloppy. Given the vast advances in chemical-safety practices since the original construction of the building, it would be a shocking coincidence that lab safety suddenly plunged at the same time as it was being renovated. A more compelling explanation is that health problems are connected to careless construction of the newly renovated lab and office spaces. Only after students have moved into the renovated sections of the building have they reported health problems. Still, the task force blames the students.

The members of the task force were exceptionally unqualified to conduct a proper investigation into this matter. The committee consisted of an ombudsperson, a human-resources representative, an associate provost, a lawyer, a professor from the UI College of Public Health, and an industrial hygienist from the College of Public Health.

Given the findings of the task force, it seems that the lawyer was the most vital member of the committee. The final statement of the article in the DI on the subject was very telling. Apparently the most important aspect of the situation is whether “any of the affected occupants have taken legal action against the university.”

Nobody wants to sue because nobody knows who (if anyone) is to blame for the current problems. The students just want to be able to do their research, graduate, and start their careers without worrying about their health. The truth of the matter is that the task-force members could not determine what the source of health problems is. But rather than admitting they don’t know, they blamed the students. Given the fact that a dozen chemists could not find any problems with their lab practices, it is fairly difficult to imagine that a committee spearheaded by an English professor would be able to make such a conclusive determination. As an Iowa taxpayer, I see the need for the university to cover itself in the legal department. But when students’ and employees’ health is at risk, the university has a moral obligation to do everything it can to alleviate those risks. The university has failed to meet that obligation.

Daniel Roston is a Ph.D. candidate in the chemistry department.


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