University officials said they do not know why a diesel generator’s toxic exhaust seeped into Duqu?s Hall earlier this month, but precautions are being put in place in case a similar unexplained accident reoccurs.
Carbon monoxide fumes from an emergency generator outside Madison Hall entered classrooms in Duqu?s April 14. The University is unsure what caused the exhaust to enter the building during the generator’s regularly scheduled run that occurs each Friday, said Matt Lindsay, assistant director of Media Relations.
“It’s still not clear … It could have just been a fluke,” Lindsay said. “There are a variety of plausible explanations for what occurred … but at this point we have not isolated any one factor as the sole cause.”
GW’s Facilities Management specialists inspected the generator last week, determining that the machine was in “normal working order” and that the incident may have been caused by wind patterns channeling the fumes into Duqu?s, Lindsay said.
To lessen the potential harm to students and faculty in facilities with back-up generators, administrators moved the machines’ automatic maintenance runs to Saturdays, when academic buildings are less occupied.
Senior Michael Hochman, who called 911 when he felt lightheaded in his psychology class in Duqu?s, said he was angry about the potentially dangerous situation.
“It’s common sense not to have a generator near a ventilation system,” said Hockman, who said he is familiar with the use of back-up generators at home in Florida. “After the hurricane(s), there (have been) lots of incidents where people have left their generators on, and a few people had died from carbon monoxide poisoning.”
Hochman and classmate Jonathan Syms, a junior, received medical treatment from EMeRG a few hours after exposure to the exhaust fumes. Syms said GW should install carbon monoxide detectors in its buildings, which would alert students of dangerous conditions. Hochman alerted his classmates of the presence of the gas.
Alan Etter, a D.C. Fire Department spokesperson, said no such alarms are installed in Duqu?s.
“If a carbon monoxide detector was present, it would have sounded upon detection,” Etter said. “Carbon monoxide detectors are not mandatory, but it is a good idea to have one.”
A carbon monoxide detector would give building occupants early warning of gas before it reaches serious levels. The psychology students’ voluntary decision to evacuate led to reduced exposure to the airborne toxin – which can be lethal in high concentrations, said Tee Guidotti, chair of the department of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology.
“If you are exposed for long enough and in high enough levels, it can cut off an adequate supply of oxygen in the blood to the tissues,” he said. “It can be really serious, even fatal, (but) it sounds like the levels in the Business School weren’t even close to that.”
Psychology professor Emily Doolittle’s class – which Hochman and Syms both were in – occupied the room closest to the generator emitting the gas.
“Carbon monoxide is poisonous – who am I to judge what amounts are safe? But it strikes me (that) having it pumped into the room through the air vents (is) not good,” she said. “If I have students feeling lightheaded, I’m not going to stay in the classroom … I don’t know where it could’ve gone if we sat there too much longer.”