The Public Eye

A Sacramento State chemical spill has lab techs questioning their workplace safety

A Sacramento State chemical spill has lab techs questioning their workplace safety

A chemical spill at Sacramento State last year has led to questions about whether the university is putting its lab workers at risk from exposure to hazardous substances.
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A chemical spill at Sacramento State last year has led to questions about whether the university is putting its lab workers at risk from exposure to hazardous substances.

A chemical spill at Sacramento State last year has led to questions about whether the university is putting its lab workers at risk from exposure to hazardous substances.

Some lab employees say they work in areas so poorly ventilated that acidic fumes corrode metal and rubber, and two workers claim that exposure to these substances and others may have led to their inability to have children.

“Our whole stockroom is rusting and rubber bands last only about two weeks before they pulverize, and that is the norm for us,” said lab manager Barbara Coulombe, 49. “If something needs to be protected, like our respirators, we keep them in plastic bags and put them in Tupperware.”

The California State University Employees Union, which represents the lab technicians, has filed multiple grievances questioning the safety of employees working in the chemistry stockrooms and the protocols for dealing with hazardous materials throughout the campus.

The university argues there is no reason to believe the employees are endangered, pointing to a UCLA study of air quality in Sacramento State chemistry stockrooms.

“There is no evidence of an ongoing hazard based on their measurements on acid or organic vapors,” said Steve Leland, CSU Sacramento director of environmental health and safety. “We are looking at the ventilation to bring it up to best practices. … There is no reason for me to think the room is unsafe to occupy.”

The recent trouble began just over a year ago. On May 11, 2016, lab technicians were called to an advanced chemistry class to clean up a spill. They say they were told the chemicals were acetone, a solvent used in nail polish remover, and ethyl acetate, another solvent used to decaffeinate coffee.

They wore lab coats, nitrile gloves, safety glasses and half-face respirators to clean up the spill.

In actuality, they say, the spilled chemical was a more dangerous solvent called dimethylformamide or DMF.

One of the chemistry lab technicians, Michelle Watterson, said she and her colleagues would have called the county’s hazardous materials team to clean it up instead if they had known it was DMF.

Watterson and Chris Martinez, two of the five technicians who helped clean up the spill, blame their jobs at Sacramento State for their inability to have children.

Within 10 months of the May 2016 chemical spill, Watterson, 37, had two miscarriages. Her co-worker Martinez, 35, learned he was infertile a few months after his wife miscarried a baby in August.

“The fact we can’t have another child is devastating,” Martinez said. “I have to deal with the shame of not being able to do that, the inadequacies. It makes me feel less than a man. It’s difficult.”

Both of the technicians’ doctors have said that their short-term exposure to DMF probably wasn’t to blame for their reproductive problems.

DMF can be absorbed through the skin, inhaled or digested, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is a potent liver toxin that can cause a variety of symptoms, including abdominal distress, nausea and skin problems, according to the CDC website. The impact of DMF on reproduction has not been adequately studied.

A report from Martinez’s worker’s compensation doctor said long-term exposure could have damaged his reproductive health.

“Mr. Martinez is exposed to thousands of chemicals on a daily basis at work, and it is possible that these exposures have affected his fertility,” said Dr. Stephen McCurdy in the report.

The lab workers say that besides their DMF exposure, they work in two stockrooms filled with chemicals, and the adjoining offices where they often eat and drink have improper ventilation.

On a recent visit by The Bee to the fourth-floor stockroom, a staff member pointed out corroded drawer handles, door jambs and metal outlet covers. A drawer handle broke in two and fell to the ground a few weeks before. According to stockroom staff, filters had been tacked over the air supply registers after they complained that black particles had been falling on them.

The fifth-floor stockroom contains the more toxic organic chemicals and solvents. A strong smell of chemicals intensifies as you walk into the solvent storage room in the back of the stockroom. Martinez develops a sore throat and a headache if he stays in the room more than an hour, according to a report from his doctor.

According to a UCLA Office of Environment, Health and Safety study commissioned by Sacramento State, the Sequoia Hall stockrooms have ventilation “on the low end of adequate,” resulting in strong smells. The report, which was released to The Bee in its entirety, says that while no detectable volatile organic compounds were found in the air, the corrosion in the stockrooms indicates corrosive vapors.

The ventilation in a lab filled with chemicals should be on the high end, not low end, Coulombe said.

In response to the May 2016 spill, the California State Employees Union asked the university to stop requiring lab technicians to clean up hazardous materials, pay the medical costs associated with the spill and provide health monitoring for the technicians for the next three years.

Watterson, Martinez and Coulombe retained the Hughey Law Group in Sacramento but have yet to file a lawsuit.

The employees contend they were misled about the type of chemical that spilled when they were called to the classroom. They didn’t learn the chemical was actually DMF until Martinez searched through the hazardous waste bag containing the broken bottles the next day.

Martinez checked the bags after learning that a student in the class suffered chemical burns on her feet during the spill. Acetone and ethyl acetone generally don’t cause such injuries.

A report by the UC Center for Laboratory Safety, commissioned by Sacramento State, confirms the identity of the chemical was unknown when lab staff cleaned it up.

Sacramento State redacted 32 of the 50 pages from the UC report it provided The Bee in response to Public Records Act requests. The university invoked attorney-client privilege because its attorney contracted with UC for the report.

“I would say the cover-up is on,” said Tom Dimitre, a labor relations representative for the California State University Employees Union.

Initially, Sacramento State issued a truncated version of the UC report under its own letterhead.

“We deserve to have a copy of the original report,” Watterson said.

The portion of the UC report that was not redacted contains an overview of the May 11, 2016, incident in Room 538 of Sequoia Hall. It says a bottle fell off of a shelf supported by pegs in a storage unit. The pegs do not offer stable support and could be easily bumped out of place, according to the report. It also found that one bottle had a ill-fitting lid.

Urine tests from the technicians showed no DMF exposure, according to the report, although it acknowledged that the delay in testing – almost 24 hours – made any exposure nearly impossible to detect. The technicians say they weren’t able to be tested until almost 28 hours after the incident and believe the university should have informed them sooner that they handled DMF.

In March, Nelsen instituted recommendations from the UCLA report. Those include developing standard operating procedures for chemical spills, an emergency action plan, a laboratory safety manual and protocols and training on the use of particularly hazardous substances. He also asked the faculty to handle safety training instead of the lab technicians.

The environmental problems at Sacramento State go beyond Sequoia Hall, Harrington said.

The California State University Employees Union has filed grievances about the elevated lead in campus water sources, lead dust found in Santa Clara Hall, the Sequoia Hall chemical spill and what they say is the lack of a committee that examines ways to solve health and safety issues, Dimitre said.

University officials say a health and safety committee exists on campus and has met once this year and twice last year.

Union officials are meeting with legislators to discuss a safety audit of the school, Harrington said. They also have asked Cal-OSHA to investigate the university.

“We have to go outside the campus to ask for help,” Harrington said.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert