Renovations at the University of Vermont’s Williams Hall this summer may have exposed students, faculty and staff to unsafe levels of lead dust, prompting a state investigation into whether the university or its contractors violated workplace safety laws.
Robert McLeod, manager of the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration (VOSHA), said his office began its investigation September 5 in response to a complaint filed by a UVM employee. The Vermont Department of Health’s asbestos and lead regulatory program is also looking into the matter, said Austin Sumner, state epidemiologist for environmental health.
According to academic department heads and UVM’s online registrar records, more than 100 students and at least two dozen faculty and staff members worked and studied in Williams Hall, home to UVM’s anthropology, art & art history departments, during the renovations. A number of young children and pregnant and nursing mothers routinely visited the building as well.
Faculty and staff concerned that they may have been exposed to lead dust were directed to Concentra Medical Services of South Burlington for blood screening, according to an internal university email. Students who took classes in Williams Hall over the summer also received an email notifying them of the problem, said Dr. John Porter, medical director of UVM’s Center for Health and Wellbeing.
Blood tests conducted on two students and 10 faculty and staff members have all come back normal, Porter said, adding that an unknown number of tests are “still in the pipeline.”
Porter said he believes everyone who worked or took classes in the building this summer has been notified. But two faculty members, who asked that they not be named, claimed some of their students had not been told of the potential exposure.
Williams Hall, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1896. Like many pre-1978 buildings, it was known to contain lead-based paint, which can be dislodged by drilling, sanding, scraping or other construction work. Lead dust can then be inhaled or ingested, posing a potential health hazard.
Between June and August, four art studios in Williams were renovated by Bread Loaf Construction of Middlebury. A second contractor, J.A. Morrissey Construction, repaired or replaced windows, window sashes, bricks and mortar on the east and west sides of the five-story structure. Employees recall that dust and debris were tracked around the building during the work.
On August 22, Cara Hanson, UVM’s project manager for interior renovations, notified faculty and staff via email that environmental tests in the building had turned up “higher than acceptable” lead readings on the first four floors of Williams Hall.
Spokespersons for Bread Loaf and J.A. Morrissey both declined to comment on the state’s investigation, referring all questions to university officials.
Bob Vaughan, UVM’s director of capital planning and management, couldn’t say which project may have caused the spike in lead levels, though he suspects it was “a combination of the two.”
“Clearly, we needed some additional protocols in place not to have lead levels that were unacceptable,” Vaughan said. “But I’m not ready to state that anyone has broken with any procedures.”
The building, which was shut down for five days for cleaning and retesting, now poses no health threat to the building’s occupants, Vaughan said.
Nevertheless, some university employees who worked in Williams this summer were critical of the way UVM and its contractors handled the job.
Bill McDowell, chair of the UVM art & art history department, said faculty, staff and students were never informed of the possible health dangers posed by the renovations. No warning signs were posted on the entrances to the building, he said, nor was any health and safety information distributed to students or staff.
“In my opinion, had they done a better job of containing the dust they generated, this would not have been such a big problem,” McDowell said.
Privately, other faculty and staff members expressed anger over the university’s “cavalier attitude” toward the potential for lead exposure. One employee noted that there were “eight children under the age of 5” who were in the anthropology department’s offices regularly between June and August.
Others pointed out that several pregnant and nursing mothers, including at least one pregnant student, were in the building during the summer session, but were never warned of the potential health dangers of lead exposure.
As one employee put it, “I don’t think I would have worked up here this summer, to tell you the truth.”
Sumner, of the health department, said there is no level of lead exposure considered safe for children and infants, and women of childbearing age are advised to minimize their exposure. Even low levels of exposure can cause learning disabilities and hyperactivity in children. In higher levels, lead can affect the neurological system and cause anemia. In adults, elevated blood-lead levels can contribute to high blood pressure, kidney disease, cognitive dysfunctions and reproductive disorders. Lead is also a suspected carcinogen.
Sumner said that just because someone at UVM shows an elevated blood-lead level doesn’t mean it was caused by dust in Williams Hall, since there are other environmental lead risks in the community. For instance, Burlington has more than 10,000 housing units with lead-based paint hazards, according to the city’s lead abatement program.
Sumner said he’s been in contact with the university’s plant safety office, but emphasized that his investigation into possible lead exposure by faculty, staff and students is still “in the very preliminary stages.”
VOSHA’s McLeod said he has little information “at this point” about whether any laws were broken. The agency is looking into whether UVM or its contractors engaged in unsafe practices, such as inadequately enclosing interior work areas with plastic sheathing; not using proper cleanup methods; or failing to provide protective clothing and gear to workers. Violations could result in citations and fines.
McLeod said VOSHA will issue a report in three to four weeks.