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Oregon Hall employees suffer undiagnosed health problems, possibly caused by building conditions

Victoria Moran first noticed the smell in February of 2011.

The floor she worked on had recently been remodeled and a strange scent filled her office in Oregon Hall. It was sickly sweet and chemical-like, similar to concentrated bug spray, and it left Moran with burning eyes, nausea and a metallic taste in her mouth. When a co-worker came by, he commented that Moran didn’t look too well. After a few minutes, her co-worker’s eyes also began to burn. In April of that year, Moran’s symptoms worsened. By July, she was in the emergency room. Her nausea had turned into pain so severe that when she checked in, her doctor believed she had appendicitis. However, he could find no definitive cause for Moran’s pain, and she was sent home.

Moran then took a 10-day vacation from working at Oregon Hall. While away, her symptoms disappeared.

“I thought, ‘That was weird. Alright, I’m better. Everything’s going to be fine,'” Moran said. “Then I went back to work, all the symptoms came back.”

Nearly two years later, Moran still experiences severe stomach pain, burning eyes, nose and throat at work. However, when she exits the building or returns home for the weekend, her symptoms subside only to return when Moran starts again on Monday.

Over the past two years, Moran has racked up medical bills surpassing $2,000, paid out-of-pocket. Her doctor hasn’t been able to pinpoint the cause of her symptoms. But there was one thing he did believe — the cause of Moran’s health issues could be environmental.

Moran’s health complaints are not the only ones coming from Oregon Hall and they certainly were not the first.

In 2006, 68 Oregon Hall employees signed a petition detailing the symptoms they were experiencing in the building — the same as those Moran experienced — and asked the UO for help.

However, despite the number of employees suffering, many are afraid to come forward.

Carla McNelly, who serves as the steward of record for employees’ health issues in Oregon Hall and works in the building, has had employees from every floor report health issues to her.

After Oregon Hall underwent construction in spring 2007, McNelly went to Urgent Care for respiratory issues and hives. She was out sick for six weeks.

A co-worker experienced similar health issues during the construction and was also out sick. However, when McNelly and her co-worker returned to Oregon Hall, they were told by their then-vice provost that the health issues were all in their heads. From what other employees have told McNelly, this dismissive attitude from supervisors is not uncommon.

“I’ve been told it’s me because I’m heavy. Others have been told it’s them because they smoke,” McNelly said. “There’s been all kinds of things we’ve been told where people have not believed us.”

Other employees from Oregon Hall and other buildings on campus declined to speak to the Emerald on the record for fear of having it used against them.

According to industrial hygienist Adam Jones, who was hired in August 2012 to investigate the air quality issues in Oregon Hall, employees’ fear of speaking out is evident. Jones has been working to collect data to diagnose the cause of Oregon Hall’s problems. However, Jones has only been able to collect data on symptoms from two or three employees. Without more information, he says, it’s difficult to draw a conclusion.

“I can’t even get them to talk to me,” Jones said. “I’ve only been here eight months, but there’s a lot that’s happened here before I came that I had nothing to do with. Most of what I do involves input. I need to hear from people.”

In lieu of a complete data set, Jones has been inspecting the building from floor to ceiling. He hasn’t found a conclusive cause for the building’s issues.

“Most of the time, we’re able to figure out what it is and fix it,” Jones said. “Oregon Hall is unusual in that we haven’t been able to fix it yet.”

Jones is not the first to take on Oregon Hall.

The UO has spent nearly $42,000 between 2010 and 2012 trying to solve the issue, from work on the HVAC system to cleaning ducts. In addition to having its own Environmental Health and Safety department investigate the problem, the UO had the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as well as Portland-based air inspection company Wise Steps, conduct investigations of Oregon Hall’s air quality. Tests came back negative for any potential cause for employees’ health complaints.

“This has been going on a long time,” Jones said. “There’s definitely been an effort made, and I would consider it to be a respectable effort.”

Despite inconclusive results in the past, McNelly believes hiring Jones was money well spent and she hopes he can solve the problem.

“They have spent thousands of dollars trying to make a difference in Oregon Hall, and it hasn’t made a significant difference,” McNelly said. “But knowing he’s there and he’s trying to do something is amazing.”

Since she was hospitalized two years ago, Moran’s symptoms have continued to worsen. Sometimes, she is in so much pain that she has to go home.

Despite her health issues, Moran says she loves her job and wants to keep working with the University. For the last year, she has tried to transfer to a different building. She has taken her story to Human Resources and her director, but for now, she remains in Oregon Hall.

While Moran said she is less afraid than others to speak up about her symptoms due to the support of her department, she is not unafraid of the consequences.

“My contract could not be renewed. I am scared — I’m not going to say I’m not,” she said. “But at the same time, I know what’s right, and this is right. I just think it’s wrong to allow people to be harmed in this way. It breaks my heart to see sick co-workers and to walk into Oregon Hall and know I’m going to be sick that day.”

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Samantha Matsumoto

Samantha Matsumoto