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Students Face Hazards and Health Risks in Chemistry Building

From rusty brown water in eyewash stations and waterless safety showers, to temperamental heating systems and leaking ceilings, Howard University chemists face non-operational sanitation stations and failing building infrastructure.

Photo: Howard University site 

From rusty brown water in eyewash stations and waterless safety showers, to temperamental heating systems and leaking ceilings, Howard University chemists face non-operational sanitation stations and failing building infrastructure. 

“We had no clue we have been working in labs without safety shower access,” captions a video uploaded to Twitter on Oct. 26 from @HowardChemist. The video shows murky water coming from an eyewash station and the lack of running water in safety showers. 

According to Frank Tramble, vice president of communications and chief communications officer, the chemistry department is aware of the issue stating, “the chemistry department is aware of the eyewash stations that need to be replaced, and the project underway to do so.”

The @HowardChemist page also highlights laboratory and building doors with asbestos, a known lung cancer causing agent, which appear to be taped and painted over. In an interview with multiple Howard chemists, who asked to be anonymous, they shared their experiences while dealing with these conditions. 

“This has been an issue since 2019, so some of the videos and pictures are old, but that is the current state of the building,” said the first anonymous Howard chemist in the group regarding the longevity of these conditions.

A chemistry student, who attended Howard in 2015, said, “These issues have been prevalent for a long time. By fall 2016 there was a meeting with Bernard Mair, an interim dean for College of Arts and Sciences, in which we talked about how we never have anything to conduct labs successfully. That was all the way back in 2016 and still there is no change; if anything there’s just shown deterioration of the building.” 

On the current state of the building, Tramble states, “There is a current engineering design and construction project that is being completed to improve the tempered water system that impacts the eye wash stations.” 

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The issues go far beyond a shortage of working emergency equipment, but spread to challenges with failing building infrastructure and a lack of safe and secure working environments. Students often have to navigate leaking roofs and shattered glass, along with carrying personal heaters due to an absence of heat in the winter months. Some students even secure personal protective items for fear of sexual harassment and assault by trespassers who often sneak into the building. 

“It’s a safety issue, for years there was a guy who would come in and masturbate while looking at students,” a third Howard chemist said, who also wished to remain anonymous. “And that was also a couple of weeks ago, it was an ongoing issue for years. He was sexually harassing and assaulting people in this building,” Howard chemist one said. When asked where the Howard police were during these incidents, the response was “they never caught him, they never did anything about it.” 

The current conditions not only pose potential physical and health risks, but have also proven to take a toll on the experience and mental health of students. Many Howard chemists are left with sentiments of betrayal and despair. “[We feel] lied to. Everyone is told this is the place for Black excellence, but where is it? Because I haven’t seen it,” Howard chemist one said. “My mental health is in the trash; I’m on antidepressants because of the stress that Howard has put me under. I have literally sacrificed my mental health for a PhD and I didn’t come here to do that,” continues Howard chemist one.

While students have repeatedly requested help from administration, the chemists have been able to successfully find points of contact, such as the Environmental Health and Safety department, the Physical Facility Management department and Associate Dean for Research, Graduate Programs and Natural Sciences Kim Louis, all of which have proven helpful. 

Tramble shares, “The EHS team, in partnership with the chemistry department and its regulatory body created an interim safety plan that includes the implementation of eye saline wall stations and portable high pressure eye wash stations. The eye wash stations that were impacted by a plumbing issue were placed out of service, the water supply was disconnected, the station was covered to prevent usage, and signage was placed on them to alert everyone that the eyewash stations were out of service.” 

However, with many emails left unanswered, and simple, “We’re working on it,” responses from some, Howard chemists share they felt compelled to turn to social media, using Twitter posts and public shaming to call for speedy and efficient aid. 

Howard chemist one said, “We’ve done this before; this isn’t the first time we’ve spoken to them. But this is the first time I actually believe something is going to come of it, and it’s only because we’ve shamed them and it shouldn’t have gotten that far.” 

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Tramble said, “One of the  videos shared on social media has been circulated previously. The second video was taken after someone removed the cover and signage from the eyewash station and turned on the water supply. The university contacted OSHA and other regulatory agencies in August, and again in October to make them aware of the project to update the tempered water system.”

Through all of this, all the Howard chemists stressed the sentiments of unity and a need to “do better” to the Howard administration. One Howard chemist said, “It’s not an adversarial relationship, it’s not us versus them, but this is what we felt we had to do to get them to listen, because we have not been heard.” 

The student chemists feel it goes beyond having a great community and exceptional student body, but that “a working and effective community” is needed for the situation to get better. 

Copy edited by Jasper Smith


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