Physically ill

CSU professor claims air in university’s Physical Sciences Building contains mycotoxins

Chico State professor John McMurtry points to a makeshift water catchment system he said has been in place for several years in the classroom where he teaches astronomy. Several rooms in the Physical Science Building have similar systems to help stem regular flooding that he believes contributes to dangerous mold growth.

Chico State professor John McMurtry points to a makeshift water catchment system he said has been in place for several years in the classroom where he teaches astronomy. Several rooms in the Physical Science Building have similar systems to help stem regular flooding that he believes contributes to dangerous mold growth.

Photo by Ken Smith

In a report sent to Chico State administration and several faculty members on Monday (Aug. 5), a Chico State University professor contends that staff in the college’s Physical Science Building have endured unhealthy conditions for decades, including constant exposure to at least two dangerous mycotoxins.

The professor, John McMurtry—who teaches in the Geological and Environmental Sciences Department—further contends that these conditions have contributed to strange illnesses and that university response to ongoing complaints has been inadequate. He also fears that similar problems may affect a number of other buildings on campus.

“These ongoing conditions include continuous ‘particulate rain’ from the HVAC [heating, ventilation and air-conditioning] system, water infiltration and flooding, stained and moldy ceiling tiles, the presence of rodents and their feces, inadequate and faulty ventilation, improper storage of radioactive materials, sewer gases leaking from sink drains, and clouds of rock dust and chemical fumes wafting from laboratories,” reads the report, which was prepared by McMurtry and his wife, retired environmental sciences professor Karolyn “Gina” Johnston, who also worked in the building for many years before health problems forced her to retire in 2009.

Johnston suffered from adult-onset asthma and underwent numerous sinus surgeries during her tenure in the building; she quit working after developing an as-yet-unexplained tremor in her hand that is so severe she can’t write. McMurtry said other staff members’ ailments include sinus and respiratory issues, early-onset Parkinson’s disease, severe skin rashes; in some cases, there have been early deaths.

Prompted by McMurtry’s ongoing complaints, Chico State’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) conducted microscopic analysis on the particulate rain—a coating of black dust that often covers surfaces in the building in question—confirming the dust included “mold spores and hyphae, insect parts, pollen, rock dust, etc.”

Feeling the analysis fell short, McMurtry cultured the dust himself to perform chemical testing, which revealed the presence of two mycotoxins—trichothecene and aflatoxin B1 (AFB1). His findings were confirmed in July, at McMurtry’s own expense, by an independent certified laboratory, New Jersey-based EMSL Analytical Inc.

The report is annotated with several sources identifying these substances as “potent neurotoxins, carcinogens, mutagens, teratogens and immunosuppressants.” AFB1, according to one of the studies referenced, may figure prominently in the “induction of human lung and liver cancer, as well as other cancers,” and McMurtry noted that both substances are so toxic they have been used in chemical warfare.

The report sent to Chico State staff and faculty Monday was partly derived from a larger study McMurtry and Johnston presented to EHS and university administration several months ago. When the recent test results confirmed the presence of mycotoxins, the couple felt compelled to share their findings with colleagues.

“These concerns for our health have led us to believe we have an ethical obligation to inform other building occupants or visitors of potential risks,” the pair’s report reads. “These substances may be present in the ventilation of other buildings on campus.

“The university had ethical and contractual obligations to provide a healthy and safe working environment for employees. Knowing that unsafe working conditions existed, they failed to meet these obligations.”

In response to McMurtry’s report, Joe Wills, Chico State’s director of Public Affairs, confirmed that EHS’ microscopic testing of dust from a vent in McMurtry’s office last spring identified mold spores and hyphae. Wills said EHS officials and experts consulted by Chico State said that these were common to many environments and weren’t cause for concern.

He said the same experts were consulted regarding McMurtry’s further testing, and they said he achieved the results only because he cultured the samples, and that this doesn’t necessarily indicate the presence of dangerous mycotoxins.

Wills countered many of McMurtry’s other claims, explaining the building has a hospital-grade air-ventilation system to filter out toxins, and that experiments and scientific processes are conducted under fume hoods to ensure hazardous chemicals aren’t released into circulated air.

“Right now, based on everything we know, we’re convinced it’s not a sick building, that it’s a healthy building to be in and to work in,” Wills said. “But if he brings new information to us, we’ll absolutely review it. If we have to do new testing based on something he or someone else brings forward, we will definitely do it.”

Wills agreed that the building—built in 1961—could use some repairs, acknowledging that it has problems with water infiltration and leaks. He said the school has long planned on replacing the building, but it’s not currently feasible.

“There’s sort of a queue for these projects and it’s definitely in line,” he said. “It’s in the master plan and we’re hoping to have it rebuilt in some years.”

During a recent tour of the building, McMurtry pointed out several of its problems. The particulate dust he mentions covered every surface in his office. Room after room contained makeshift water-collection systems to direct water from stained, discolored ceiling tiles through hoses into sinks and trash cans. Much of the building’s rock lab, which McMurtry says isn’t equipped with proper ventilation for the work done there, was covered in a thick rock dust. In one room, he pointed out a fume hood that didn’t have an exhaust duct to carry away noxious gases.

As bad as the building is, he claims it was much worse before a fire in the spring—before the samples in question were taken—prompted a major cleaning.

McMurtry insisted his science is solid, and that the university’s testing falls short.

“They did microscopic analysis and identified what they could see,” he said, “but they stopped short of doing a chemical analysis and culturing for mold.

“They found pieces of and visible evidence of mold. It’s just common sense that when you find mold you want to look for the metabolites, which are the things that are really bad for you.”

McMurtry is also critical of claims that the building’s ventilation system is adequate, noting that, in several rooms, vents don’t even lead to ducts, and there are no partitions above the ceiling separating many rooms.

McMurtry said he isn’t sure how to proceed, but hopes his report will prompt further action. He said when he sent a copy to Karla Zimmerlee, an executive assistant in Chico State President Paul Zingg’s office, she replied with a claim for workers’ compensation. He has since submitted his report to the Cal/OSHA and CalEPA (the state’s department of Occupational Safety and Health, and its Environmental Protection Agency).

McMurtry, who has spent a great deal of time in the building since starting as a student in 1979 and getting a job there shortly after graduation, said the situation is so troubling he is considering ending his career early.

“I’m one of those guys that loves my job and has barely missed a day of work ever, but it’s to the point that I’m not sure I even want to come to work anymore,” he said.