If You Smell Something, Say Something: Shutting Down a Toxic Situation

Last spring I noticed a pungent odor at the city recreational center where my son attends after school care. They had been doing some renovations and they were refinishing the floors in the gymnasium. The smell lingered for weeks. I tried speaking to some of the staff about it, asking if they knew what was used, if there was enough ventilation. They just looked at me like I was crazy so I let it go. I figured my son really only spent about 30 minutes per day indoors there and I couldn’t undo what was already done.

I was wrong.

One year later and the smell is back again. I don’t mean the kind of faint smell that only my supernose can detect. I’m talking about walk down 9th Street and it will knock you on your ass. I spent a total of three minutes inside retrieving my son and already felt a headache coming on.

“What is going on? Why are they refinishing the floors again? What are they using? How can anyone breathe in here?”

Silence. Stares. “Um, the rec director is on vacation so maybe you can speak with him Tuesday.” It’s Thursday. And tomorrow is a half day at school so my son was meant to spend at least four hours in there. I call a friend to see if she can pick him up directly from school. And then I get to work. This is not normal. 

First I Googled the emails for some people at the head of the city’s parks and recreation department. The Project Director of Capital Projects quickly forwarded me the following response directly from the flooring company.

“I am sorry for the inconvenience. I didn’t know that this building was being used all day. The polyurethane absolutely carries a strong odor. Though it is not toxic in any way, I certainly wouldn’t want to smell it for hours at a time. The floor currently has (3) coatings of finish on it. This is plenty of protection. I recommend that we stop here. Tomorrow morning, 1st thing, open up all doors and windows and vent the building out, if able. I feel bad. The finish is oil based polyurethane. I will email over the MSDS and product data tomorrow so you have it. Again, not toxic, but it stinks!” 

What? You didn’t know that there were 75 children in the building literally on the other side of the wall of the gym? You are telling me that oil-based polyurethane is nontoxic when the most basic and publicly available information is to the contrary?

Polyurethane, a petrochemical resin that contains isocyanates, is a known respiratory toxin. Uncured polyurethane can cause breathing problems such as asthma. People who are in rooms that have uncured polyurethane floors can also experience health problems including eye and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, vomiting, coughing and shortness of breath. Children and people with respiratory diseases are especially sensitive to the toxic chemicals in polyurethane.

According to some research, water and oil-based polyurethane are equally problematic, but oil-based gives off a stronger odor. That stronger odor can actually be a positive thing as a sort of alarm bell (as it was in this case). But the reason oil-based poly is used  – in addition to being cheaper – is precisely to avoid having to frequently redo floors. This is a rec center gym used for occasional kids soccer games, not the Superdome.

But on to the key problem at hand: why are they painting floors with toxins with ZERO ventilation and 75 children crammed inside on a rainy, humid day?

So I reached out to Jerry Roseman, M.Sc.IH. Director of Environmental Science & Occupational Safety & Health for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health & Welfare Fund & Union – and a neighbor of mine who lives just a few blocks from the rec center himself.

He is a scientist and he knows his shit. And he was appalled. He could not believe this was taking place without any of the most basic health precautions. And if it was happening here, where else was it happening? Does the city not have any protocol for how this kind of hazardous maintenance is handled?

He was immediately on the case and reached out to the parks and recreation management:

“…It was reported that an oil-based polyurethane product is being used during periods of normal occupancy at the Recreation Center and that the work has continued for most of this week. Parents and others reported that strong odors are present – and acknowledged by contractors and Rec Center workers –  throughout the building, especially in areas where young children are spending significant time during the day.
Based on the questions about potential health impacts and exposures raised to me, especially those posed to young children,  I agreed to initiate contact to obtain further information and to provide help if possible.
Some specific concerns include:
1) Exposures to children, parents, and staff associated with floor refinishing work using an oil-based polyurethane and without any isolation or ventilation being employed to ensure that vapors from the product are not impacting areas adjacent to the work area;
2) A significant number of young children are in the Rec Center for several hours a day while work is occurring and the odor from the materials used is quite strong and has reportedly resulted in some acute health impacts and questions from parents;
3) The work has been going on for several days resulting in a somewhat prolonged exposure situation – i.e. this is not simply a few-minute or even few-hour exposure condition
4) Potential exposures associated with oil-based polyurethane products present a range of toxicity ranging from upper respiratory irritation, to headache, dizziness, and nausea, and perhaps most concerning, possible respiratory sensitization, and asthma-like allergic responses;
5) The lack of ventilation and isolation of the work area – typically the use of oil-based polyurethane products involves restricting people not engaged in the floor refinishing work from areas where exposure to vapor, mist, etc. can occur during application of the chemical and until the product has sufficiently “cured” and dried so that further exposure no longer occurs [depending on ventilation, air exchange,  humidity and other factors this process can take several days or longer]; and
6) For a number of reasons young children are a particularly vulnerable “at-risk” population re: environmental exposures and associated health impacts.
Preliminary Recommendations & Questions
1) Please immediately provide a detailed description of the work being conducted highlighting the use of ventilation and isolation, if any, to restrict odor and vapor from impacting unprotected individuals, especially children, in and around the area;
2) Please immediately provide a copy of the MSDS for the product being used to assess toxicity and health risk;
3) An evaluation of the on-site situation and conditions should be conducted and ventilation and area isolation techniques employed before any further work is conducted; and
4) If exposures to oil-based polyurethane are occurring as reported, and if the product being used has recognized health impacts associated with exposure to chemical vapors, and particularly if there are impacts on young children, work/play areas should not be occupied – alternative space should immediately be identified and provided.
As a final note, it was reported that the process described above [and the use of polyurethane products for gym floor application] has occurred over the years – this is not the first application of this type of floor refinishing work at the Recreation Center.  I would assume then, that this work is being conducted, and these types of products are being used city wide.  A comprehensive assessment of this situation should be undertaken and a set of procedures and guidelines developed to direct floor refinishing activities that are performed in occupied settings, especially those where young children are present and may be impacted….”
Oh, it gets better.
We obtained the MSDS sheet for the product (not the sales sheet provided by the contractor) and it looks like this:
And that’s just page one.
Parks and Rec administration were deployed to the rec center where they immediately closed the center for any indoor activity until Tuesday. They modified exhaust fans to allow fresh air to enter and ventilate the building and had the contractor provide a large fan (novel idea) at the doorway of the gym – though Jerry cautioned that the gym area should then be isolated with plastic barriers to avoid actually blowing the air from the gym into other building areas. Risk management was notified and the wheels were put in motion for a discussion of best practices for this type of maintenance moving forward. Jerry and I will be keeping an eye on the situation to make sure that this conversation actually does happen and produces tangible results.
The moral of this story: SPEAK UP. Don’t just swallow the fumes. Say something. And tell a friend to say something. A blog post on The Lunch Tray shares this flyer about the power of collaboration by likening one parent to “a fruitcake,” three parents to “troublemakers,” ten parents as “we’d better listen,” and 50 parents as “a powerful organization.”

I will risk being that fruitcake for the 75 children who weren’t allowed in that building today. But I don’t have to always be that fruitcake. Let people know that we are not crazy and they better listen!

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