Many still contest chemistry report

BY SAM LANE | DECEMBER 14, 2009 7:30 AM

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Despite a lengthy and detailed investigation into health concerns in the Chemistry Building, those who work and study there say they are frustrated with the lack of progress made to improve conditions.

After receiving complaints on how the task force interpreted an outside consultant’s review of the building’s conditions, the UI held two public forums Dec. 11 on the matter. Roughly 30 people attended the events to share their opinions on the Nov. 6 report’s findings.

“It seemed appropriate now as the report has been delivered to have an open conversation with anyone interested in the issue,” Barbara Eckstein, the chairwoman of the panel, said after the second forum at the Chemistry Building. “An open forum is a way to reach the whole array of people who occupy the building.”

Compiled by the “task force to address health concerns and the Chemistry Building,” the report asserted some actions performed in the building’s labs were unsafe and may have contributed to reported illnesses among several occupants.

Those in the chemistry department said at the forums they think officials are incorrectly addressing the building’s issues and lack urgency in responding to the health concerns.

Eleven building occupants reported a variety of health concerns, including respiratory problems, headaches, short-term memory loss, disorientation, and difficulty concentrating.

Eric Koehn, a UI graduate student in chemistry who attended the forum, said he experiences similar health problems, which he believes are a result of the building’s ongoing construction project.

He said he asked the task force if he could move to an office in the Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories, but members told him there was no room, offering space in Van Allen instead. But Koehn declined, deciding to stay in the Chemistry Building.

Since the report’s release, a number of UI students, staff, and faculty have expressed their disagreement with its findings.

Many in the chemistry department have said the allegations are inaccurately placed on student researchers instead of the construction project disrupting airflow in the building.

Laurence Fuortes, a task force member and an associate director of the UI Employee Health Clinic, emphasized the importance of occupants’ health at the forums, saying the report laid out all of the consultant’s findings with no intention of placing blame.

“We want to optimize health and safety in the building,” he said. “This wasn’t blameful in any way.”

In addition, some say the task force — whose members’ backgrounds range from the General Counsel’s Office to the Employee Health Clinic — lacked credible chemistry experts and thus could not accurately evaluate lab practices which the report considers unsafe.

Stephanie Leonard, an industrial hygienist from the Iowa City consultant WorkSafe, is a member of the committee who defends the report’s credibility.

“A lot of what we did was based on what you — the occupants — told us,” she said to the group at the Pomerantz Center.

Others who defended the report said Bureau Veritas, a national consultant hired for $30,000 to complete an investigation, is a perfectly credible analyst. Officials said the representative from Bureau Veritas examined four or five rooms at the Chemistry Building and concluded the lab safety procedures were not followed.

A “transition team” will perform follow-up reviews of the building to see “how things are coming along,” Eckstein said. It will begin assessment in six months. In addition, the task force has added a clarifying summary of the findings to its website.

After the forum, some in the chemistry department said they still felt they had unanswered questions or solutions.

“[The forum] was not effective,” Koehn said. “I think some questions weren’t addressed.”

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