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Union raises mould concerns at SFU

The Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) at Simon Fraser University is raising the alarm about toxic mould found in the Education Building on the Burnaby campus.

TSSU spokesperson Melissa Roth said while it appears the problem has existed for several years, the union is concerned that it was never informed of the issue or potential dangers until it started asking SFU's administration about rumours it had heard.

The TSSU represents 3,500 staff at SFU, including sessional instructors and teaching assistants.

Roth said at a recent town hall meeting on the subject she heard a member of another campus union say they had been working in the building for 20 years and experienced symptoms for much of that time.

Part of the problem is that people often aren't aware what the symptoms are of air quality issues related to mould, she said.

When TSSU members were surveyed, few knew about the mould issue or remediation work in the building.

"However, when I started saying the symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue, flu-like symptoms that never get better or that are associated with the space, I can tell you right now there are five members that believe this has happened to them."

Some have had to take time off work or take migraine medications "all because of spending time in specific rooms in that building."

Roth noted a U.S. study found 29 per cent of adult-onset asthma is due to indoor air quality.

"Because of this communication issue, people don't know that they are being [subjected] to these conditions. This is not just staff and workers, but students. There are classrooms still being used in that building. If you don't know that you're being [subjected] to this, we are concerned they won't know to tell their doctor."

The issue stems from moisture getting into the 40-year-old education building, something the university discovered over the past two years, said Terry Waterhouse, SFU's chief safety officer.

Not only has it created a problem with mould and indoor air quality, it's also affected the structure of the building, he said. While the full extent of the problem won't be known until this June, when final assessments are completed, remediation work began about a year ago.

Already $1 million has been spent on remediating several classrooms, offices and a gymnasium. The replacement of the roof was completed last summer.

WorkSafeBC guidelines about indoor air quality are being met, Waterhouse said. If a problem is identified in an area, that space is vacated until the necessary repairs are made.

SFU has received about a dozen reports of concerns about the space in general but it's difficult to determine that mould is directly at fault, he said.

"What we do know is that some people are more susceptible to indoor air quality problems … But the science is not at a stage where a direct correlation can be made to the presence of mould, for example, and a health impact for an individual."

But that direct correlation is not necessary before the university takes action, he noted.

Classrooms under remediation and the entire graduate programs wing have been closed and classes and staff relocated until the work is complete, expected sometime this summer.

SFU, like other post-secondary institutions, has a problem of regular maintenance being deferred due to a lack of funding from the provincial government. But in this case, repairs are not being delayed as a result.

Health and safety issues, as have been found in the Education Building, are never deferred and in fact are at the top of the priority list and "fully resourced," he said.

It's expected the work, including those involving structural integrity, will take another two to three years to complete.

As for TSSU's concerns about communication over the problem, he said, the university has "communicated broadly" with users of the education building, distributed reports about the work, and held a well-attended town hall meeting in March.

"We are certainly attempting to be extremely proactive and transparent within the university community about these issues."

wchow@burnabynewsleader.com

twitter.com/WandaChow

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