UH faculty say fumes in aging building making them sick

Ventilation system concerns at UH laboratory building
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

MANOA, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Some faculty members are raising concerns about occasional odors and fumes in an aging six-story lab that they worry might be bad for their health.

Roughly 150 people work in the University of Hawaii at Manoa's St. John Plant Science Laboratory building, where the windows are sealed.

Professor Joe DeFrank relocated his office last November. The weed science specialist in the Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Science had worked in the complex for more than 30 years.

"I'm just trying to figure out what does it take for the university to respond to this sick building syndrome? Do they want to see somebody get sick? Do they want to see somebody pass out?" he said.

DeFrank said he has endured dust contamination in his lab due to construction. He said the worst experience was exposure to chemical vapors in his office last November.

"I experienced lightheadedness, disorientation, and for about the next three hours after I left the building, I could taste it in my saliva," he said.

Associate Professor Andy Kaufman has also noticed a problem. He installed charcoal air filters on all the vents in his office.

"Intermittently, we have really funky smells. Usually myself, my students, they get headaches, feel kind of fatigued," said Kaufman, a landscape specialist in the Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Science.

The university's Environmental Health and Safety Office looks into the complaints, but DeFrank said the investigation is inadequate.

"They respond to it by coming up here, telling you that they can smell it or they can't smell it. They open up the fire door. That dissipates it. Then they tell you they're going to monitor it and keep track, and then good luck until the next time," he said.

UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said part of the problem may be due to the improper use of fume hoods, which are designed to limit exposure to toxic vapors.

"It's tough to track some of these things down, it's true. But we're doing the best we can and along with that, addressing some of the concerns, looking at the ventilation system so I think the university is really trying to address the problems as best we can," he said.

The university is also trying to improve the air flow in and out of the building.

"Recently, there was an air conditioning project that we're hoping would increase the ventilation, and there's been a follow up project that I think is in progress right now to speed up the fans to increase the pressurization," Meisenzahl said.

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