Health concerns, complaints over noxious fumes prompt action by SDSU president

Students+pass+the+College+of+Professional+Studies+and+Fine+Arts+building+at+San+Diego+State+University+on+March+28%2C+2019.+The+building+was+closed+from+odors+because+of+roofing+repairs.+%0A
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Health concerns, complaints over noxious fumes prompt action by SDSU president

Students pass the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts building at San Diego State University on March 28, 2019. The building was closed from odors because of roofing repairs.

Students pass the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts building at San Diego State University on March 28, 2019. The building was closed from odors because of roofing repairs.

Brandon Quester/inewsource

Students pass the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts building at San Diego State University on March 28, 2019. The building was closed from odors because of roofing repairs.

Brandon Quester/inewsource

Brandon Quester/inewsource

Students pass the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts building at San Diego State University on March 28, 2019. The building was closed from odors because of roofing repairs.

by Brad Racino, Lauren J. Mapp, and Bella Ross

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This story is the product of a collaboration between The Daily Aztec and inewsource. Brad Racino is a senior investigative reporter for inewsource.

More than 75 faculty members, staff and students at San Diego State University packed an open forum Wednesday to demand answers of campus leadership about noxious odors that have sickened many since January.

They also complained to university officials, including President Adela de la Torre, about the poor communication surrounding the situation at the Professional Studies and Fine Arts (PSFA) building. It was closed on March 13 — six weeks after the university was told of odors from a chemical used during roof repairs and it began air monitoring tests.

At least 22 people have filed reports with the university since January, documenting illnesses, such as sore throats, itchy eyes, nausea, headaches and nosebleeds. The forum was called in response to questions and complaints, but it was scheduled during spring break when the campus is all but vacated. Another meeting is to occur on Monday, April 8.

Teachers, staff and students who did attend the 90-minute meeting fired questions about why communication from SDSU had been so poor, what specifically the university was testing at the affected building, and why their complaints over the past several months had been dismissed.

“We have been sick and I want to know why information has not been communicated to people earlier,” said Nathian Shae Rodriguez, an assistant professor who worked in the building.

“Because if I had known about this in January or February, I could’ve gone to the doctor. What I thought was a common cold or other symptoms, like allergies, was not – it was coming from this building,” he said.

Audience members applauded after he asked, “What are you doing to make sure that this is not going to happen again?”

Jessica Rentto, SDSU’s associate vice president for business and financial affairs, acknowledged the school had made mistakes.

“I think we all understand that we’ve lost your trust,” Rentto said, “and it is our priority to build that trust back up.”

Joel Berman, vice president of environmental consulting firm Health Science Associates, was introduced to answer questions about chemicals used during the roof repair.

His answers did not satisfy the crowd. In one instance, Berman told the audience, “At no level and at no point were you exposed to a risk to your health.” At another, he said health issues were not related to the chemicals used during construction. A few minutes later, he said he never said that.

Many at the forum shook their heads and sighed when Berman made a comment about women being sensitive to odors and referenced comedian Jeff Foxworthy and Star Trek. Rentto later apologized for his remarks.

Roddrick Colvin, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs, said there are policy solutions the university can enact to better serve the community. He suggested a building satisfaction survey, a point person to be made responsible for dealing with faculty and student concerns, and the hiring of a truly independent consultant to assess potential dangers.

“This guy was basically hired by the administration,” Colvin said of Berman, “and there’s no trust in anything that he says.”

Rebecca Nee, an associate professor in the School of Journalism & Media Studies, cited inewsource’s reporting about county violation notices sent to SDSU last week, and asked, “How could we possibly even think about going back in until those violations have been formally addressed with the county?”

Rentto said the county Air Pollution Control District notices were nuisance violations, “similar to if a bus idles in front of a school for a certain period of time.” She said SDSU doesn’t see any ongoing violations that need to be resolved.

The county’s Air Pollution Control District sent notices Friday to SDSU, Sylvester Roofing and Tremco Roofing & Building Maintenance, citing violations of the California Health & Safety Code and district regulations.

The violations describe, “Discharging from a source, quantities of air contaminants or other material which cause injury, detriment, nuisance or annoyance to any considerable number of persons.

“Specifically …” the violations read, “the release of coal tar pitch volatiles into the building.”

The notices give 10 business days to respond in writing of actions taken to correct the violations or reasons they believe the violations didn’t occur. The county will then determine whether to dismiss the violations, assess penalties or move forward with civil or criminal prosecution.

Desiree Warren, an administrative assistant in the School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, told inewsource she experienced one of the worst migraines of her life shortly after being exposed to the odors in January.

“I actually have a doctor’s appointment on Friday because my symptoms are ongoing,” Warren said.

“We’ve been out of the building for almost a month and I’m still having the migraines.”

Belinda Vasquez, executive assistant to the dean of the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts, said she continues to have health problems despite moving out of the building weeks ago.

“I had excruciating headaches, blurry vision, a chest pain, like a pressure, nosebleeds and a sore throat — it’s like a burning sensation in the throat,” Vasquez said. “And I still have them.”

Several people at Wednesday’s meeting said health problems in the PSFA building go far beyond the recent construction project. They cited mold, extreme temperatures, problems with the bathrooms and worries about asbestos.

The forum ended on a high note for those seeking tangible next steps. President de la Torre announced she had made an executive decision to delay plans to reoccupy the building, which was scheduled for April 9.

“I am not going to have faculty and staff at San Diego state, or the students, placed at risk,” she said.

She also promised to hold deans and department chairs accountable for a higher standard of communication.

“This is not going to happen again,” she said.

Several of the most vocal critics said they were optimistic.

“I believe her, I trust her,” said Nee, who earlier told inewsource she had been diagnosed with asthma for the first time in her life after working in the PSFA building this year.

“It’s a huge sense of relief – I was not looking forward to going back next week,” she said.

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