More than five years after initially reporting “air quality” issues in BVM Hall to the university, some employees’ offices have been dispersed around campus and the problems continue, several affected members told The Phoenix.
The mathematics and statistics department moved from Loyola Hall to BVM Hall in 2013, when the members — many of whom asked to remain anonymous — say they noticed air quality problems almost immediately.
The building, near San Francisco and de Nobili Residence Halls, also houses offices of employees in the anthropology department and some of the nursing school.
The Phoenix spoke with ten employees across the anthropology and mathematics and statistics departments who say the building, specifically the higher floors on the east side, has a pungent “musty” smell that became impossible for some people to ignore.
Some mentioned flooding, pipes bursting, possible mold and elevators consistently being out of order — a physical challenge for those going to the top floor of the 11-story building, which was used to house Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary beginning in 1959.
In 2010, Loyola bought the building — 6364 N. Sheridan Road — and it was briefly used as a residence hall. The first three floors of BVM were completely renovated in 2013 to construct the Institute for Environmental Sustainability (IES), which focuses on finding solutions to environmental issues.
Nearly five-and-a-half years after the first reports of air quality issues, the problem still hasn’t been solved.
The university has spent more than $1 million since 2013 on the issue, university spokesperson Evangeline Politis said on behalf of Kana Henning, associate vice president for facilities. An investigation was completed earlier this winter and the results are set to be shared with those with offices in BVM Hall at the end of the month, Politis said.
“Despite no scientific results indicating the presence of any biological or chemical cause for illness, the University has invested $1,225,000 in testing and proactive remediation in the building,” Politis said in an email to The Phoenix.
Prior to the Mathematics and Statistics Department’s relocation to BVM, the first three floors of the building were gutted and completely renovated, Henning said through Politis.
Some staff members said they thought the renovation and construction of IES had played a part in the issues, but they can’t know for sure.
“My impression from the beginning is that there were problems with renovation or remediation of the building,” Robert Jensen, a professor in the math and statistics department, said.
He said there were three or four minor floods in the building during the department’s first year there.
The air quality concerns were first reported to the administration in September 2013, resulting in air tests in the building by an external company. Despite some employees saying they saw mold in the vents, no problems showed up in the air tests, according to a timeline of events given to The Phoenix by the tenured faculty of the Math and Statistics department.
The website of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration says when mold can be seen, air sampling generally isn’t needed. The Illinois Department of Public Health also indicates testing cannot adequately determine if “health effects” will occur.
In the initial complaints, employees said they included reports of bodily effects, including scratchy eyes, sore throats and headaches, that seemed to be correlated to the building. Some of these impacts and others are listed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as consequences of mold exposure.
One employee said more than one person working in the building has been “severely affected,” by the building, and some have had heart palpitations they believe to be connected to the air quality in BVM.
Politis said the school is aware of these claims but didn’t comment further.
The department complained again to the administration, resulting in a second round of tests in October 2013. This time, mold was found in the air ducts, but the employees were told it wasn’t affecting the air quality in the building.
The EPA advises people in schools and other commercial buildings to “respond promptly” to signs of moisture or mold in a building, saying mold should be cleaned off hard surfaces.
Tenured members of the Math and Statistics faculty told The Phoenix they weren’t provided the findings of this report until they wrote a letter to then-university President Fr. Michael Garanzini, S.J.
Throughout the second half of 2013, the departments employed different tactics in an effort to improve air conditions in the building.
They allocated their personal funds — totaling around $2,000 — to hire an external consultant to conduct another investigation. One employee said the departments didn’t feel they had the authority to bring an investigation firm to campus, so they met with the firm off-campus and gave a history of the issues along with photos.
The employees were told vents would be replaced over the 2013-14 winter break, the timeline said, and the employees confirmed the replacement happened on time.
The timeline, which was approved by all 15 of the tenured faculty members in the Math and Stats Department, indicated the air quality in the building improved at the beginning of 2014 due to the vent replacements, but by that summer there were “noticeable odors” in certain offices, and reports were made to the administration again.
A year later, in summer 2015, air quality concerns were reported to the administration again.
A year after that, the air quality reached a point where some offices were “unusable,” the timeline said. One staff member in the Math and Statistics department said that meant anyone who entered those offices would “instantly be repelled by the smell.”
In August of 2016, the timeline said the employees were informed that further testing would be done. They were told in September 2016 that an air handler, which regulates airflow, had been “decommissioned” for years, since at least before the math and stats department moved into the building. The university said the building still met city codes because each office had a window that could open, one employee said. Employees were provided window fans by the university.
In the winter of 2017, the timeline indicates the problems had gotten worse and parts of the building smelled of methane gas, which is often associated with open sewer pipes. The building was inspected and some sewer pipes were capped, and the methane gas smell went away, one employee said.
The employees were told that spring the air handler would be replaced in the summer, the timeline said. It wasn’t.
In fall 2017, they were again told a new air handler would be installed, according to the timeline. One employee said administrators told him Henning planned to have an “information session” following the completion of the installation. While the meeting never happened, one member said it seemed the air handler had been replaced.
By September of 2018, several employees were relocated to Alumni House as a temporary solution. That building was recently demolished, and employees were again relocated to buildings across campus, including Centennial Forum and Cudahy Science Hall.
Certain members in BVM Hall choose to use their offices “rarely or not at all,” one employee said, meaning they work from home when they can or hold office hours in other buildings on campus. One employee said he has an office in BVM Hall but it has a “warning, do not enter” sign on the door.
With certain members within the anthropology and mathematics and statistics departments removed from the building, collaboration and communication has been difficult, the employees said. Some said this affects the morale of the department as a whole, and they’ve seen negative impacts on their interactions with students as well.
“Ultimately I think this affects students too in terms of [professors] not being able to communicate with others in the department about classroom issues,” one member said.
In November of last year, the university hired an external firm to investigate the air quality in the building once again and more than a dozen people were interviewed about their experiences, the timeline said. The employees said this was the first time they were able to directly offer their testimonies more than five years after the initial reports were given to the university.
When asked via email, Politis didn’t reveal the name of the external firm.
Some members said they felt their claims weren’t respected by the university from the beginning of the situation in 2013.
“I feel as if all the departments here that have issues had a lot of resistance from the university not taking us seriously — just look at the timeline, we’re talking four or five years,” Jensen said.
John Pelissero, the former provost and interim president between Garanzini and Rooney’s tenures, said the administration handled the situation with care by employing outside consultants.
“Simply stated, during my tenure as provost, each and every concern raised about the air quality on the floors occupied by the Math Dept. in BVM hall was examined, I or other administrators in the Provost Office listened to the concerns of our faculty and staff, the concerns were provided to the administrators responsible for the facility, and remediation steps were taken, often with outside contractors with expertise in such matters,” Pelissero wrote in an email to The Phoenix.
Alan Saleski, a professor in the Math and Stats Department, said the employees should have been more included in the process and investigations. His views were echoed by others in the department.
“I think there are some ethical issues with keeping people informed about what might have an impact on their health,” Saleski said.
One member said the only reason the Math and Stats Department was able to get through to the administration was the involvement of Thomas Regan, S.J., dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
“We feel without him, we would have been entirely blown off,” one employee said. “He’s been a total advocate for our position.”
Some employees, including Saleski, said it’s awkward to recruit new hires to their departments while explaining the situation. Saleski said he also wonders about the impact it has on parents of prospective students.
“When we recruit, we want not to be ashamed of our situation,” Saleski said. “We have to tell people who we recruit what the situation is, and the situation never sounds very appealing at all.”
Most employees interviewed said the problems have been going on too long.
“This is supposed to be a professional environment where these things get taken care of,” one member said. “And five years … seems too long.”
Regan declined to comment further until the report is shared with the affected employees and he reviews its findings.
For the same reason, Politis declined requests for interviews with chief financial officer Wayne Magdziarz, whom employees said was involved in the situation. Magdziarz didn’t respond to a direct request for comment.
Politis didn’t respond to an email asking if Rooney was aware of the situation and reports, and she didn’t provide a comment on her behalf. Garanzini didn’t respond to The Phoenix’s requests for comment ahead of publication.