A breath of bad air

Student Danielle Frey was working in the USF photography lab when she was forced to leave after feeling ill.

“My lips swelled up and my bronchial tubes closed up,” she said. “It seems like it’s suddenly gotten a lot worse.”

Frey wasn’t the only photography student experiencing discomfort.

Officials from the Environmental Health and Safety Department closed the photography lab Monday after students complained of a wide range of symptoms including sore throats, eye irritation and breathing difficulty.

Lou Marcus, a professor in the photography department, said the problem is related to poor building design. He said the illnesses are due to moldy and dusty conditions that exist in the lab.

“There have been chronic problems with air quality and air circulation in the photography lab for a number of years,” Marcus said. “We felt that it was not safe to send our students in there.”

James Jedierowski, coordinator of Maintenance and Allocation for the Physical Plant, was contacted Tuesday but said he could not yet comment because he didn’t know of the situation.

Marcus said after four or five students were affected, Environmental Health and Safety officials were called. He said the officials closed the lab Monday, but decided it was safe on Tuesday. Marcus said he disagreed with the decision, and decided the lab should remain closed.

“They didn’t have the personnel and equipment at the time to really inspect it,” Marcus said. “From their point of view the lab is (safe) to be open, but we don’t buy it.”

Marcus said workers have been making repairs in the lab, but he is disappointed with the efforts.

“We feel the response to the problem so far has been pretty cosmetic,” he said. “The exhaust grills have been spray-painted white. If that was indicative (of the work), that’s not a good sign.”The photography lab is located in the north wing of the Fine Arts Building. It consists of several rooms and is windowless. In its current condition, several ceiling tiles are covered in mold and evidence of mold can be seen on structures throughout the lab.

Chris Weeks, the media, lab and equipment manager for the photography lab, said low humidity and ventilation is important in the lab, where chemicals are regularly used. He said there has been evidence on several occasions that the air conditioner, which is supposed to remain running, has been turned off over weekends.

He said the lack of air in a well-sealed room causes the air to stagnate, which leads to mold development.

“We’ve been complaining since last summer,” Weeks said,

“They’ve never really taken us seriously at all until students started getting sick.”

Weeks said the damage in the lab may run deeper than just structural concerns. He said some of the 28 lenses used in photo development, which cost about $300 apiece, are developing fungus growth. The fungus, Weeks said, will eventually destroy the lenses. Weeks blames much of the problem on a poor air handling system.

“Health and Safety (officials) admitted yesterday it was never designed properly to begin with,” he said. “Apparently the contractor didn’t do the job properly.”

Marcus said he plans to reopen the lab on Monday. He said while the short term solution is to clean the building, the long-term solution may be expensive.

“The university is going to have to come up with some money,” Marcus said.

“The problem is that maintenance on this is non-existent … we need to get (workers) on a regular schedule.”

Marcus said the main problem with closing the lab is its effect on students.

“It interferes with students getting the work done,” he said.

“The instructors are dealing with that by pushing back student assignments.”

Jennifer Armstrong, a senior photography student, said it’s disappointing that such a situation has occurred.

“It’s kind of like a decision we have to make whether our education or our health is more important,” she said.

Armstrong said even before the incident on Monday, she would have to go outside the lab and take breaks. She said the slow speed of response to the problem is frustrating and that some students have considered leaving USF due to the health concerns.

“(Repair work) is not going very fast,” Armstrong said. “I’ve paid too much for this education (for this to happen).”

  • Contact Rob Brannonat oraclerob@yahoo.com