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Allergy-like symptoms blamed on airborne glass fibers in EWU library

Eastern Washington University has spent nearly $1 million this year to mitigate air contamination in its John F. Kennedy Library.

Though some employees reportedly became sick from working in the library, EWU spokesman Dave Meany said the air quality is being closely monitored and additional custodians have been assigned to clean surfaces in the building.

“It’s a safe place for people to work. It’s not hazardous,” Meany said. “We do understand that some people are going to be sensitive to it, so we’ve tried to make reasonable accommodations for that.”

Library employees in January began reporting a range of allergylike symptoms, including headaches, skin rashes, itchy eyes, sneezing, chest tightness and sore throats. The cause of those symptoms was a mystery at first, but some employees were so afflicted they could not work in their regular offices. Several were relocated to other buildings.

The complaints seemed to center on two suites and a conference room in the library. But in June, the entire 153,000-square-foot building was closed for a week while a private contractor conducted a deep cleaning. Books and surfaces were wiped free of dust and particles. Window blinds were replaced.

“We cleaned everything,” Meany said.

The university also hired several private labs to test the library for mold spores and other particulates. Using adhesive tape to collect dust from horizontal surfaces, scientists discovered concentrations of glass fibers “well above proposed levels that trigger complaints of contact dermatitis,” according to a report prepared in September by Terracon Consultants Inc.

Microscopic glass fibers can be found in various building materials, including acoustic ceiling panels commonly used in schools and office buildings. When released in high enough concentrations, glass fibers can cause irritation – but there appears to be scant scientific research about long-term health effects.

The Terracon report states: “Acute skin, eye and respiratory irritation from fibrous glass exposure is well documented; however, the relationship between glass fiber exposure and lower respiratory symptoms is less well established.”

The same consultant concurred with EWU’s health and safety department, writing that excess glass fibers probably had been shaken loose from the library’s ceiling tiles after workers made adjustments to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. Air ducts began vibrating against the frame that holds the ceiling tiles, causing the particles to come off the unsealed edges of the tiles. The report states that “occupant reports of vibration noise from HVAC equipment correlated with a sudden increase in the number and severity of (indoor air quality) complaints.”

The consultant recommended that EWU develop a standard protocol for investigating complaints related to indoor air quality. The report also states that workers should regularly vacuum and wipe down surfaces in the library. And, if cleaning is insufficient, the university should remove carpet and upholstered surfaces that tend to catch tiny particles.

Some have suggested replacing all the ceiling tiles in the building, but Meany said that process could release more glass fibers and make the problem worse.

“Our health and safety experts believe that would actually do more harm than good,” he said, “because that would stir up everything.”

Officials with the state Department of Labor and Industries began looking into the EWU situation after a reporter’s inquiry on Wednesday. It wasn’t immediately clear if the department had played a role in the air quality investigation.

Meany said sampling of the air in the library would continue until officials are confident the problem is under control.

“We’re trying to stay on top of it,” he said.

The university this year also mitigated mold in Williamson and Martin halls, which sit adjacent to the library.

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