Officials: Chemistry Building report faulty

BY SAM LANE | DECEMBER 04, 2009 7:30 AM

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Some officials in the UI chemistry department say claims made in a recently released report regarding the condition of the Chemistry Building are an inaccurate representation of the department’s laboratory procedures.

Compiled by a UI task force, the Nov. 6 report asserted some actions performed in the building’s labs were unsafe and may have contributed to reported illnesses among several occupants.

David Wiemer, the chairman of the chemistry department, said the task- force report had many flaws, including placing too much blame on lab safety and failing to enlist any chemistry experts.

UI officials launched the investigation in April following claims from 11 of the building’s occupants that various conditions in the building caused their symptoms, which included respiratory problems, headaches, short-term memory loss, disorientation, and difficulty concentrating.

The investigation involved hiring two outside consultants for a total cost of $30,000.

The task force, which included officials from various UI departments, was then responsible for compiling a summary report of the consultants’ findings.

Many said they are not upset with the actual investigation but rather the committee’s interpretation of its findings.

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Wiemer said he asked to be on the task force but was turned down because of a possible conflict of interest. He then asked for the panel to enlist an outside chemistry expert, but officials did not take his suggestion.

“The composition of the task force is interesting,” he said. “I don’t know why they didn’t ask people with a chemical background [to participate].”

Task-force head Barbara Eckstein did not return calls for comment on Thursday.

Wiemer said he does not agree with the assessment that the illnesses can be attributed to actions conducted in the building’s labs.

He said that the chemistry department has always employed a significant number of safety procedures, including a required course for students on the importance of lab safety before the start of school.

UI chemistry graduate student Daniel Roston said he thinks the report inaccurately blames students for the health concerns of the 11 individuals.

The university should have involved a medical professional if it was concerned with occupants’ health, he said.

One striking element of the report states that students did not properly follow safety procedures when they worked after hours. However, Roston said, he feels this stems from one extreme case in which a student spilled a certain solvent and passed out from the fumes. No one was in the area to immediately assist the student, he said.

Amnon Kohen — an associate professor in the chemistry department — agreed that the report overemphasizes lab safety as a problem. To an outsider, the lab’s condition may seem more unusual than to a chemist.

Kohen said a more likely cause for the illnesses is “disrupted air flow” as a result of ongoing renovation to the building. A large part of the report was devoted to the construction project as a cause for concern.

“Our hope at this time is that all the symptoms are renovation-related,” Kohen said.

UI spokesman Tom Moore said committee members will review the concerns over the report. The task force will respond to anyone who has expressed concern and post responses on its website.

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