NC State officials say troubled chemistry building has been found safe, but scientists who work there question testing

By: and - November 17, 2021 1:20 pm
NC State’s Dabney Hall

After a series of tests at N.C. State’s Dabney Hall, home to the Chemistry Department, the school’s Environmental Health and Safety office is saying concerns expressed by staff, faculty and students about air quality are overblown.

But chemistry and safety experts in the department say the methodology of the tests was faulty and still show concerning levels of chemical compounds in areas where they shouldn’t appear — including offices where no chemicals are used or stored.

Dr. Jim Martin, a chemistry professor who has run his own series of tests in the building with worrisome results, recently reviewed the results of the university’s sampling. He spoke to Policy Watch from Germany this week, saying there were “glaring oversights” in the recent testing.

“I was a little bit shocked at what was and was not there,” Martin said. “The whole problem initiated out of Dabney 818, my laboratory. That’s the only lab that was tested. All the other rooms were offices. And Dabney 818 was only tested somewhat as an afterthought. They began the test in another office and then moved it after 50 minutes. You’re not supposed to move it after the sampling has started.”

NC State University chemistry professor Jim Martin (Photo: NCSU)

Dabney Hall has a long history of ventilation problems. Martin and others in the department worry those problems could be exposing students, faculty members and staff to at least a dozen harmful compounds, including benzene, a known carcinogen. Previous air tests conducted by the university’s Environmental Health and Safety Department in December 2019 led to those concerns, as well as students experiencing headaches, nausea and vomiting when working in labs in the building.

Martin’s own testing found a variety of volatile organic compounds in troubling quantities, even in areas — like his own office — where none should have been picked up.

Volatile organic compounds are typically industrial solvents, as well as components in paint thinners, hydraulic fluids, adhesives, and more, according to the EPA. Exposure to these compounds, also known as VOCs, can irritate the eyes, nose and throat; cause nausea and vomiting, and, depending on the length and intensity of the exposure, can cause cancer and damage the liver, kidney and nervous system.

Melinda Box, organic chemistry lab supervisor and safety officer, detailed the air quality problems at Dabney Hall in an official complaint filed Oct. 17. The complaint — the second Box has filed — expresses frustration at the lack of support from the Chemistry Department and the university. Those working in the building’s labs have repeatedly called for department officials to do proper air sampling and to fix an old and poorly functioning HVAC system.

Melinda Box, organic chemistry lab supervisor and safety officer at NC State University (Photo: NCSU)

Box said this time around she and others in the department initially had a hard time getting their hands on the full results of sampling and are skeptical of the methods used to get the results that Environmental Health and Safety officials say show VOCs and other chemicals at acceptable levels.

“EH&S were very resistant, past the date of compliance, in releasing them,” Box said. “The good news is, the report is bringing up all of our concerns with the way the tests have been done.”

Those concerns include when the sampling is done and when and whether the heating system has been in use beforehand.

“The way they did the tests, it’s hard to know what to compare them to,” Box said. “The particular samples they chose to take, it’s hard to tell why those samples were taken, in terms of comparison.”

Because of the way some of the samples were taken, she said, they are essentially meaningless. That includes moving sampling equipment from one site to another after sampling began.

“With environmental testing in general, it’s easy to find results that prove there is nothing wrong,” Box sad. “But this wasn’t a proper systematic testing of the things we’re concerned about.”

Box said the chemistry department is now pursuing further testing from a third party vendor, largely because the university’s Environmental Health and Safety office — which she said was already understaffed — has recently lost a number of people in a short period, which gives it even less capacity for proper testing.

Admitting the problem

Madhi Fahim, assistant director of Environmental Health and Safety at N.C. State University. (Photo: NC State)

Early this month Mahdi Fahim, assistant director and lab safety manager of the Environmental Health and Safety office, resigned.

The sudden resignation came shortly after Policy Watch published a story about the problems at Dabney Hall and detailed student, faculty and staff concerns with the way the office had handled their complaints.

In an email to Chemistry Department professors and lab safety officers, Fahim said he would leave the position this month after 15 years.

“I apologize if I have not always been able to provide the quality service you need and deserve,” Fahim wrote.

In his own email to Chemistry professors and safety officers following Fahim’s resignation, Environmental Health and Safety Director Ken Kretchman defended Fahim’s performance and the office’s work.

“Due to one statement in Mahdi’s announcement, I feel the strong need to add to his short message,” Kretchman wrote. “Madhi has been one for whom I have received nothing but compliments over his years of service. Again, just recently, he tackled a customer need in a manner which was beyond expectations. He subsequently indicated to me he did not see it that way.”

“He will be missed and I wish him all the best with the rest of his career,” Kretchman wrote.

Policy Watch spoke to Kretchman two weeks ago, shortly after Fahim’s resignation was announced. His office had seen the results of the most recent sampling, but had not yet released them. Kretchman told Policy Watch all levels of chemicals and compounds found in the building were within or well below the safe range.

When Policy Watch asked follow-up questions and requested the results themselves, Kretchman said he wasn’t sure where they could be obtained and abruptly ended the phone call.

Martin, the chemistry professor, said that didn’t surprise him.

“His position is, if he admits there is a problem, then he and the university have a responsibility to do something about it,” Martin said. “If there is no problem, then there is no responsibility.”

There are a lot of people in the department concerned the entire operation could get shut down, Martin said.

“I would not encourage that,” Martin said. “These are not acute, ‘I’m going to die’ scenarios. This is long term accumulation, which is not well studied.”

That doesn’t mean, however, there shouldn’t be concern and that the university shouldn’t be treating the issues it knows about seriously, Martin added.

Dabney Hall was built in 1969 and was never designed for the scope of lab work now being done there. The long, well-documented history of HVAC problems in the building have been common knowledge for decades.

“There needs to be some action taken on it, and I think that people seeing some of these results in areas where we should be seeing nothing is concerning for them,” Martin said. “If they took action tomorrow, it would be many years too late.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.

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Lisa Sorg

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