Faced with a deadline to finish $2.5 million in renovations to a San Diego State University building or risk losing most of the funds, campus officials made a series of decisions that threatened the health of students, faculty and staff, records obtained by inewsource show.
A roofing material used in the construction sickened dozens of people and eventually led officials to close the Professional Studies and Fine Arts building in mid-March after weeks of complaints about noxious odors that enveloped classrooms, offices and hallways. Hundreds of classes were held in the building before it was vacated.
For the students, faculty and staff of SDSU who spent time in the Professional Studies and Fine Arts building, little to no notification was given about the potential health hazards from a renovation project. University administrators later acknowledged the poor communication.
Bob Schulz, the college’s associate vice president of real estate, planning and development, wrote in a March memo to a top administrator that in hindsight, officials “should have deferred construction until this coming summer.”
“Our thinking last fall was that such a delay would have put our funding at risk due (to) funding expiration dates, and we believed we had a plan to complete the work before the start of spring classes.”
The PSFA building serves many purposes on campus, with four floors of classrooms, offices, science labs, a small library and multiple academic departments. But a university official said the building, which was constructed in 1955, has had problems that date back a couple of decades.
Repairs to the PSFA building, including patching the roof, were supposed to have begun last summer. That didn’t happen when SDSU couldn’t get state fire permits for the project, so the work was delayed until the winter break.
Then the rains came and the roof repairs didn’t hold. Leaks sprung throughout the building, and workers began using a roofing material with carcinogenic compounds that created chemical odors. By then, it was late January and students, faculty and others were back in the building. Over 200 classes were being held there every week.
About this story
inewsource is located on the SDSU campus, and its mailing address is in the affected Professional Studies and Fine Arts building.
The university received 29 formal complaints about health problems people in the building were experiencing from the fumes – everything from migraines to vomiting to nosebleeds. One faculty member in a February email to an SDSU administrator called the situation in the building “inhumane.”
inewsource shared some of those results with Celeste Monforton, who has a doctorate in occupational and environmental health from George Washington University and lectures on public health at Texas State University. She also worked at the U.S. Labor Department for about a decade, including for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Dangerous odors met with slow response
Monforton said the vapor levels from the roofing material hovered just below what federal standards deem permissible in a workplace. If the university had properly assessed the building’s airflow before the repairs began, she said, the health issues the occupants experienced likely could have been predicted and avoided.
inewsource recently interviewed three university officials about what went wrong with this renovation project and why. Answering questions for about an hourwere Eric Hansen,assistant vice president for business operations; Jessica Rentto, associate vice president of administration; and Amanda Alpiner, campus planner.
“We have hundreds of projects every year that we do. This was one case that did not work the way that we intended it to,” Hansen said. “We’re never intending to create an environment that feels dangerous to anyone.”
Hansen said the building’s age made repairing the roof challenging. The first material used to patch it failed. When the rains came and leaks sprouted in the building, a tar-based construction adhesive called Tremfix was tried.
Coal tar pitch is a primary ingredient in Tremfix and many of its compounds are known human carcinogens, according to the National Toxicology Program. And it was this material that polluted the building’s air with coal tar pitch volatiles – a vaporous form of a thick black liquid derived from coal.
The reason the chemical vapors lingered in the PSFA building is because the ducts that brought in fresh air are on the roof, Schulz said. The poor condition of the building’s heating, air conditioning and ventilation system meant once the odors got into the building through the fresh air ducts, they were difficult to remove, he said.
The odors were so pervasive that building occupants complained on Jan. 29, the first time Tremfix was used on the roof, according to a university timeline about the project. On the same day, campus workers did air monitoring for volatile organic compounds, including coal tar pitch volatiles, and found no elevated levels.
About six weeks later, when targeted air monitoring for coal tar pitch volatiles was done, the levels were just barely under the federal OSHA’s safe limit and well above the limit established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Monforton said OSHA’s safety limits are widely understood to be outdated, with the agency describing them as “inadequate for ensuring protection of worker health.” She said the levels observed in the PSFA building could easily be associated with the kinds of health symptoms occupants reported. And, given the levels were measured after the project’s completion, she said they were probably higher when the building was still occupied.
“I have just returned to my office and within five minutes am experiencing burning eyes, tasting the fumes in my mouth and throat,” Donna Conaty, interim dean of the PSFA school, wrote in a Feb. 28 email to campus planner Alpiner.
Immediately after these emails were written, Alpiner told the dean’s office the building’s occupants would be relocated to the humanities building starting March 4, more than a month after complaints started.
Rentto told inewsource university officials made relocating everyone a priority after they realized they couldn’t fix the odor problems. Documents show at least 20 different methods were tried to reduce the odors, including propping open doors and windows and accelerating the release of the vapors.
While the occupants of the PSFA building scrambled to move out, students were left to learn about the debacle through word of mouth, with no notification from the university about the odor issues until March 11.
Even with no official acknowledgment of the building’s problems, it had been clear for weeks that something was wrong. Aside from the obvious chemical odors, the halls were dotted with large fans – loud enough to drown out lectures in nearby classrooms. Professors were canceling office hours and moving classes online.
Regaining campus trust begins
The district’s notice described the violation as: “Discharging from a source, quantities of air contaminants or other material which cause injury, detriment, nuisance or annoyance to any considerable number of persons.”
Roofing consultant Tremco, which recommended using Tremfix, and subcontractor Sylvester Roofing of Escondido also received violation notices. A county spokeswoman said penalties for the violations have not yet been determined.
Faced with criticism from the campus community over how the air quality problems had been communicated, university officials announced two public forums in April. The first one, held during spring break, was packed with faculty, staff and students.
After listening for more than an hour to demands for answers about the noxious odors in PSFA, SDSU President Adela de la Torre announced the building would not reopen after the break as had been planned.
Four weeks later, de la Torre in an open letter to the campus referred to the PSFA project as a failure by SDSU leaders to provide “nimble and transparent” communication. The letter promised changes, including having one department handle all “high stakes and time-sensitive communication.”
“Without taking responsibility and shifting the blame back and forth, nobody is able to look at themselves and look at their specific department and role and how can they change it and do better for next time,” Rodriguez said.
Although the university’s website says the PSFA building is “fully opened,” officials acknowledge no classes will be held there this fall except science labs. Few of its former occupants have returned to work in the building.
University officials say the $12 million in renovations now planned for the PSFA building includes work to address concerns raised at the April forums. Besides a new roof, the building will get new windows, doors and plumbing. Improvements also will be made to the heating, air conditioning and ventilation system, and fire code corrections will be made, according to the university’s website.
Sylvester Roofing will again do the work on the roof, but Tremfix won’t be used, a university spokeswoman said. The decision was made to replace the roof, she said, because even though Tremfix effectively sealed the portion of the roof that was repaired the rest remains vulnerable to leaks.
We'll let you know when big things happen.