High lead levels found at Sac State hall; workers tested

A student is framed by a hallway as she walks past Santa Clara Hall, where high levels of lead were found in areas used for engineering and computer science classes.
A student is framed by a hallway as she walks past Santa Clara Hall, where high levels of lead were found in areas used for engineering and computer science classes.

Danger signs hang from locked doors and sheets of plastic and tape seal windows at Sacramento State’s Santa Clara Hall. The sound of vacuums drones inside.

Abatement specialists have been working since Monday to remove lead dust discovered by campus employees while doing tests in preparation for the renovation of the nearly 60-year-old building, according to campus officials.

The high levels of lead were initially found on the floor of a machine shop used by employees in the building that houses engineering and computer science classes. Further tests found elevated levels of lead in five student labs.

The high levels of lead likely resulted from soldering and welding using lead, as well as the casting of lead hammers in the workshops, a practice that was stopped in 2010, said Steve Leland, CSUS director of Environmental Health and Safety.

“Once the lead was detected, locks were put on the doors and everything was barricaded off,” Leland said.

Lead poisoning can increase blood pressure and cause fertility problems, nerve disorders, muscle and joint pain, irritability and memory or concentration problems, according to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children with increased levels of lead can have learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, behavioral problems, stunted growth, impaired hearing and kidney damage. High levels can result in mental retardation, coma and even death in children.

University officials say there is a low risk to students and employees. Thirty employees, including staff and student assistants who work in the building regularly and employees working on the renovation, were given blood tests, Leland said. None had elevated levels of lead in their blood.

“At CSUS, our priority is the health and safety of students, faculty staff and members of the community,” said Jake Hurley, associate vice president of Human Resources. “Out of an abundance of caution, we have over tested. (We have) conducted physical tests beyond what is necessary and conducted blood tests beyond what is necessary.”

Mechanical engineering students interviewed Friday seemed confident the building would be safe after the abatement work is completed.

“I’ve been around much more hazardous environments,” said Ryan Kerby, 31, who worked in construction for nine years before deciding to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. “They are doing their job. I’m glad they are taking care of it.”

Four days after the tests, which occurred over a two-day period in mid-July, a memo went out to both the computer science and engineering departments alerting faculty and staff to the high levels of lead in the building. Students who worked in the area were also notified.

Hurley acknowledges that there will be other people with concerns about the high lead levels. The school is planning a series of town-hall style meetings to inform students and staff after school begins Aug. 29.

“If we have any student, if after given all the information and an individual assessment is done – even if there isn’t a remote likelihood that they had exposure in our building – we are going to test them, Hurley said.

Leland said there is no risk that the lead dust traveled through the ventilation system to other rooms because of the building’s “primitive” air conditioning system, which consists of box units mounted in windows. “It’s an old building, and the air system isn’t a supply and return system,” he said.

Like most buildings built before 1978, Santa Clara Hall was painted with lead-based paint, but it is not a hazard because it is in good condition and isn’t chipping or cracking, Leland said. The school plans to paint over the lead-based paint when it renovates, which is standard procedure with older buildings, he said.

The abatement team is using a high-efficiency particulate air or HEPA vacuum to suck up the dust and then wet wiping the surfaces in the rooms, Leland explained. The rooms have been sealed off so that no contaminated air moves outside the building.

After the cleanup, the school aims to take samples that show less then 40 micrograms of lead per square foot. The highest lead level found last month was 1,000-5,000 micrograms per square foot, said Elisa Smith, a spokeswoman for CSUS.

“The threshold for lead is very low to trigger a mandatory response,” Hurley said. “It is designed for an infant crawling around on the floor and putting their fingers in their mouth or eating paint.”

The discovery will trigger some additional cleaning at the Santa Clara building. The floors in the workshops are swept but not mopped or vacuumed, something that will soon change, Leland said.

Classrooms and shops used by students are expected to be cleaned by Aug. 28, the day before school starts, Smith said. Non-academic areas will be completed by Sept. 30. Access to those areas will be restricted during the cleanup.

The university estimates it will spend $350,000 on the cleanup.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

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