College denies health concerns from fumes in classroom

Catherine Ryczak, CONTRIBUTOR

The ventilation system is exposed in room J 210, one of the classrooms Ramsey said had the strongest fumes. THE PROJECTOR / Catherine Ryczak

Some students attending Red River College’s Notre Dame Campus in Winnipeg are not only worried about completing their studies, but also breathing in potentially toxic fumes.

Stephen Ramsey, a former student in RRC’s civil engineering technology program, believes his education was compromised because of suspected toxic fumes in his classrooms. This ultimately forced him to exit the program, he said.

“The program was mostly what I had expected — that is, until the beginning of December 2015,” Ramsey said.

He and his classmates noticed “strong automotive-like paint fumes” in Building J, which is home to the autobody department and has civil engineering technology classrooms.

Ramsey’s instructors told him the source of the fumes was from the autobody department’s paint-spray booth. They said the smell had been an ongoing issue for years.

“The fumes at times were so bad that I noticed my cognitive ability being affected — sometimes I would have to leave 20 minutes into a class,” he said. “I put a great amount of time trying make up for the missed classes because of the paint fumes issues.”

Ramsey left a test an hour early after struggling to concentrate with the smell. He said the fumes were so apparent it made him feel sick. He reached out to Jason McMaster, RRC’s environmental health and safety ser- vices manager.

In emails exchanged between Ramsey and McMaster in December 2015, McMaster stated a meeting would be held to determine a possible solution between faculties. Ramsey said in the beginning of 2016, he thought the school had found a solution, since the fumes were no longer noticeable.

PPE, or personal protective equipment, signs are on many classroom doors at the Notre Dame Campus. THE PROJECTOR/ Catherine Ryczak

But he said the fumes were back in February.

Ramsey said there are some PPE (personal protective equipment) signs within Building J, warning those who enter certain classrooms about possible dangers.

None of Ramsey’s classrooms had the PPE designation. Ramsey also noticed doors being propped open, venting fumes into the Building J hallways.

Ramsey felt the college was not taking his concerns seriously, so he sent a for- mal email to Paul Vogt, RRC’s president and CEO, on behalf of his classmates.

“According to, symptoms of exposure to VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) are eye/nose/throat irritation, shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizziness and skin problems,” reads Ramsey’s email to Vogt.

“Severe symptoms extend to irritation of the lungs, liver and kidney damage, and central nervous system damage. Of specific concern are the effects of isocyanides, as they are commonly found in paints and lacquers (such as those likely found in the automotive department at RRC).”

The email says that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “these industrial chemicals have been found to be associated with occupational asthma, irritation of mucous membranes and dermal inflammation.”

Vogt didn’t respond to the email, Ramsey said, but the fumes subsided for the remainder of the semester.

According to Ramsey, they returned during the crucial weeks of final exams in April 2016. Ramsey said he had to rush through an exam to escape the strong presence of paint fumes in the classroom.

Hoping to return to school for his second year, Ramsey was concerned about the possibilities of fumes again. Ramsey said he sent a second email to Vogt, again with no response.

Ramsey sent a third email to Vogt that Nancy Wheatley, the dean of construction and engineering technologies, responded to. She called a meeting involving Ramsey, McMaster and Shari Bielert, the civil engineering technology chair, just before the start of his second year.

“During the meeting, Jason (McMaster) said they had discovered an issue with the ventilation system and the autobody department,” said Ramsey. “They discovered a renovation was not performed correctly. Instead of fresh air being supplied to classrooms, dirty air from the auto body department was being circulated around the J building.”

Because of the fumes, Ramsey didn’t continue his studies at RRC.

Ramsey is not the only one concerned by the fumes. Two of his class- mates have had similar experiences that have continued into their second year of studies. They are not identified in this article due to an expressed fear that speaking out may impact their academic careers.

“There are many days where I have classes and there is a very strong paint smell or strong auto body filler smell,” said one of the classmates.

Investigation reveals no toxicity concerns: RRC dean

Wheatley wrote in an email in November that the classroom is still in use since after conducting an investigation, the college determined there are no health concerns related to what she describes as the occasional odours.

She also said the college has not received any other complaints or concerns from students regarding the smell in the building.

“If students have concerns they should speak with their instructor immediately, and we will investigate
the matter,” Wheatley stated. “Our health and safety staff continue to work with instructors and students to help minimize smells that are sometimes part of working and training in industrial settings.”

Wheatley said in the event an issue is discovered, RRC will work to resolve it immediately.