An ongoing problem with the indoor air quality at South Hall has prompted doctor’s visits, numerous air quality tests and no resolution for faculty and students.
Faculty and students on the second floor of South Hall first encountered symptoms of dizziness, headaches, nausea, elevated blood pressure and heart rate, breathing problems and flu-like symptoms in November.
Julia Baker, foreign languages assistant professor, said that she was experiencing headaches in her office. She went to Satellite Med due to ongoing symptoms, where they tested her blood and found an elevated level of carboxyhemoglobin, which is when blood cells have carbon monoxide instead of oxygen attached to them.
“I was told that my carboxyhemoglobin level was 9 percent total,” Baker said. “My doctor told me 8-12 percent is considered to be that of the level of a heavy smoker, and I don’t smoke.”
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the permissible exposure limit for carbon monoxide is 35 parts-per-million during an eight-hour time period, which is about a 6 percent carboxyhemoglobin level.
“I used to work out twice a week and now I can’t do that,” Baker said. “Now I walk three stairs at home and I’m out of breath.”
Baker also said that this has not only affected professors, but students as well.
Colleen Hays, foreign languages associate professor, said, “I remember one of my students running in my office saying, ‘Can I get some aspirin? I’m having the worse headache I’ve had in my life’.”
However, Tech has tested air quality within South Hall since November. According to test results, they have found virtually no detection of carbon monoxide, but they have found typically higher levels of carbon dioxide that fluctuate throughout the day, particularly during class time.
“We found levels up to 1,500 parts-per-million of carbon dioxide,” Kent Clawson, Tech’s coordinator of environmental health and safety, said. “OSHA’s limit for working eight hours a day is 5,000 parts-per-million. Those spikes of carbon dioxide are really right around [class time] because you have all of the students waiting to get into class and all of the students getting out of class.”
Also, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers has a standard of 1,000 ppm of carbon dioxide in indoor spaces.
“We have tested for mold, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, oxygen levels, relative humidity and temperature,” Clawson said. “We have also used other equipment for VOCs in general to help identify where the source is, but we haven’t been able to find any elevated levels throughout the building.”
Clawson said he believes that one cause of higher levels of carbon dioxide is poor air circulation on the second floor.
“There’s no mechanical air circulation on this end of the building,” Clawson said. “But, the other thing that goes along with that is that this floor hasn’t had a circulation system since its inception. We are not discounting that it is an issue, but it has been that way for over 30 years.
“We haven’t found anything that had levels we didn’t expect to find. Oxygen was what we expected, and for carbon monoxide, we haven’t found anything. I think it is difficult on a lot of levels because we could have some people who could say they have elevated carboxyhemoglobin in their blood.”
After researching the issue, Clawson also said that the carboxyhemoglobin could have methylene chloride molecules, from products such as paint removers, attached to the blood cells instead of carbon monoxide.
“Even though it tests one thing in your blood, it can also be mimicked by other things like methylene chloride,” Clawson said. “So when we heard that those findings were out there, I rented another piece of equipment that tested for methylene chloride.”
However, according to test results, detection of methylene chloride has come up as less than 25 parts per billion.
Testing will resume for now in the offices and classrooms so that a solution to the problem is found.
“It’s a difficult situation because you want to find something, and if you can’t find something, it’s difficult to say, ‘Well, maybe it’s not here’,” Clawson said. “I’m bothered by the fact that we can’t find something that explains why people are not feeling well.”
Since November, several foreign language professors have temporarily relocated their offices and classrooms to the School of Nursing and Health Services building because of their students’ safety.
Baker said, “I think it is difficult for all of those involved because half of the department is no longer even over at South Hall.”
The Commission on the Status of Women, lead by Hays, is planning to send out a campus-wide survey on building satisfaction and safety.
Hays said, “This will be for faculty, staff and administrators. But we are going to try to get an online survey for students as well.”
Baker said, “Students have a right to a safe, healthy environment.”
For more information about the air quality lab results at South Hall, visit www.tntech.edu/safety/south-hall-iaq-results.