Pesticide odor closes 4th floor
Several offices on the A-400 level (4th floor) of the Central Campus closed due to odors from pesticides. Photo by Joanna Mikolajczak.
By Grant V. Ziegler
Six bed bugs found on a chair outside Financial Aid in late August forced school officials to approve spraying the 30,000 square foot area with insecticides Sept. 7, sickening some students and staff and forcing a temporary closure of the fourth floor of the A-Building.
No other areas were affected as severely by the odors from the insecticides.
John Watson, director of Facilities, said pest control vendor Cantu Services treated the area with a non-toxic neem oil pesticide approved by the Environmental Protection Agency to kill the bed bugs, and the company will continue treatments in an attempt to prevent future outbreaks.
Bed bugs are bloodsucking parasites that feed on birds and mammals and are highly transferable. The pests attach themselves to clothes and bedding, and bed bug outbreaks are increasing nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Although the initial treatment to kill the bugs on the fourth floor worked, students and staff returning to the A-400 level on Monday, Sept. 9, were overcome with strong odors from the insecticides. Facilities Services had hoped the air would be cleared out by the air conditioning system during the weekend; however, the air conditioning was not turned on until early Monday morning.
Staff members complained of symptoms ranging from coughing, sore throats and headaches to more severe symptoms such as nausea and skin eruptions, not uncommon for individuals to experience when they are exposed to insecticides, according to the CDC. These symptoms were worsened by allergies from outside when a ventilation system flush was used to bring in fresh air, according to campus nurse Linda Skidmore, who treated many of the employees. Spot cleaning with bleach wipes, candles and personal air sprays and fresheners also hindered the situation.
Various locations such as the Financial Aid office were closed as the odors became too overwhelming for staff.
“People who have pre-existing health conditions are going to be more sensitive to odors,” said Shannon Weaver, interim vice president of Business Services. “Allergies are extremely high this time of year so that’s another factor adding to the situation.”
By Sept. 13, the nauseous odor had not dissipated and Interim President Christa Slejko and her team opted to close the entire floor, with the exception of the Testing Center, so there would be three additional days for the smell to diminish. A few days later, Slejko, along with NLC’s vice presidents and representatives from multiple departments including Facilities, decided that, despite the conditions improving, the odor issue had not yet been resolved. The entire floor was closed with each department relocating to new areas of the campus.
The Testing Center, Advising, Admissions, Financial Aid, Welcome/Information Desk, Cashier and the International Center were moved to the library. The Degree Audit and Disability Services/Veteran’s Affairs relocated to K-Building, while Counseling went to the G-Building, Educational Partnerships went to H-200, TRiO to A-260 and Dual Credit went to the North Campus. Signs have been posted directing students to the relocated rooms.
Environmental air consultants from Vantage Environment Services LP collected four volatile organic compound (VOCs) samples Sept. 18 from various fourth floor locations in the A-building to evaluate the indoor air quality.
According to Vantage’s report, all the constituents that were identified were either below the permissible exposure level established by Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, or had no corresponding exposure levels established by either group. In other words, the chemicals found do not pose a health risk and the concentration of VOCs is within acceptable guidelines at the time of testing.
“There are several things we have done exactly right, and there are things that we would do differently next time,” said Slejko. “Even if not perfect, I know that everyone is trying to handle it in the most positive way possible so that we can be there for our students, and we can support our employees and co-workers through it.”
Cantu recommended another round of neem oil treatment Sept. 28, to prevent future outbreaks by killing potential bed bugs in their larval stage. The oil is being used again because introducing another chemical into the air has the possibility of complicating matters further. Watson has assured that this incident was not an “infestation.”
“Because the second round is less invasive than the first, we do not anticipate there will be as much of an odor this time,” said Weaver. “Workgroups will stay where they are currently located and we will reassess the situation again in early October.” Offices on the A-400 level will remained closed until further notice.