East Hall is easily one of the most historic buildings on the Portland State campus. The 90–year-old structure once stood as a residence hall but now is the home to the International Studies Program—and to multiple accounts of illness among the faculty working there.
Naturally, people can be apprehensive about construction problems such as mold, asbestos and the overall healthiness of an older building that has no ventilation system or air conditioning of any sort.
In fact, PSU faculty who work in East have frequently reported a range of health issues that they believe have been caused by something in the building.
Birol Yesilada, professor of both political science and international studies at PSU, no longer meets in East Hall under any circumstances because of his health.
“I cannot be in the building for more than one hour without getting an asthma attack. I do have allergy-induced asthma from things like mold,” Yesilada said. “Although I don’t know exactly what is triggering this, I will not attend meetings in East Hall. I have little problems now that I’m not around there and hardly ever use my inhaler unless I’m in that building.”
Yesilada isn’t the only faculty member who has experienced health difficulties there. Kimberley Brown, former vice provost for international affairs, explained that during her time working in East Hall, she observed numerous cases of major health issues among her co-workers.
“There are healthy individuals who have had more respiratory episodes than they had ever had before since starting work there,” Brown said. “There have been documented asbestos issues and mold issues due to a broken steam pipe that had all been attended to.”
The air was tested for anything dangerous about a year and a half ago after 13 faculty members wrote a letter of concern to the university. Scott Gallagher, director of communications at PSU, explained those results.
“When we got the letter of concern about the air in the building, we immediately set forth to get the air checked. During that time we kept the faculty and staff in that building informed, being as transparent and active as we possibly could be,” Gallagher said. “Contractors tested the air for carbon monoxide, humidity, mold and particulates, and they discovered nothing of concern.”
Yesilada doesn’t believe the building can be healthy, given his experience there.
“The university needs to provide a healthy work environment, and I don’t think it is a healthy area,” Yesilada said. “It says something when you have a number of people with health problems only inside the buildings. Something is triggering these health issues.”
Other minor illness like excessive colds and coughing have arisen among the individuals spending time in East Hall. Eve Nilenders, international faculty adviser, currently works on the first floor and started using an inhaler in 2011, three years after starting work in East.
“The air quality just feels really stagnant—if you work you feel sleepy, and I have to go outside to get a breath of fresh air,” Nilenders said. “I’ve felt I’ve gotten an increasing amount of colds. A couple of years ago I had a cold and the cough didn’t go away afterward. I went to my doctor and had to use an inhaler. That’s the first time anything like that has ever happened to me.”
The university says it recognizes the issues concerning its employees, but the current budget is simply too tight for any renovations.
“Like many buildings in Portland, it doesn’t have air conditioning—it is an older structure,” Gallagher said. “We would like to renovate it, but unfortunately we don’t have $3.5 million to put toward the building. At this time, we still have it on our list for hopefully renovating in the future, but that’s really up to what the state has and what they decide in terms of who gets funding.”
“Money is tight and we’re trying very hard to keep expenses down,” he added.
Gallagher also said that none of the faculty members have filed any claims for workers’ [compensation] because of the environment there.
“There have been no workers’ [compensation] claims at all in reference to air quality or anything else at East Hall,” Gallagher said. “We have encouraged faculty and staff to file workers’ [compensation] claims, and no one has.”
The worry remains as several faculty members continue to experience health issues that they believe are from the building. Athough no substantial cause can be found at the time, the sickness among faculty members continues to concern them.
“I was not a person whose health was affected in East Hall,” Brown said, “but for me, if I had staff who can’t go into buildings without major respiratory issues, I would like these people to have a healthy work environment.”