Sewage smells in Phillips Hall nauseate faculty, disrupt classes

Media Credit: Keegan Mullen | Hatchet Photographer

Faculty say the smell of sewage on the sixth floor of Phillips Hall has persisted for several weeks and officials don’t know what's causing the smell.

Faculty say the upper floors of Phillips Hall reek of sewage – and officials don’t know what’s causing the smell.

Faculty said the pungent odors, which started in late March, forced them to move office hours and student meetings, and impacted the quality of classes taught in the building. The smell has specifically affected classrooms and offices on the sixth floor, they said.

Jeffrey Cohen, a professor of English who has an office and teaches a class on the sixth floor of Phillips Hall, said there have always been “funky smells” in the building, but recently the smells have become worse than normal.

Cohen said he has to prop open the doors of his windowless classroom to let air circulate through the room. While lecturing last week, a strong order came pouring out of a vent, making it difficult to continue the class, he said.

“It’s not ideal,” Cohen said. “There’s three doors there and you can hear everybody walking around but we’ll suffocate in there, otherwise.”

Cohen added that the smell can be distracting during class discussions.

“It’s hard to have a serious conversation when you feel like you can’t even be in that room,” he said.

Jonathan Hsy, a professor of English, said he had to relocate office hours and meetings with students to Gelman Library about two weeks ago because of the smell.

“In addition to being obviously unpleasant, this situation might pose a health hazard to everyone in the GW community who use the building: students, faculty, staff and visitors,” Hsy said in an email.

Hsy added that even though faculty joke about the smell with each other on social media, the issue is a serious cause for concern.

“I’ve been joking with colleagues on Facebook about the ongoing #PooSaga in the building, using humor as a coping strategy for those of us who continue to suffer,” Hsy said. “But I am, on a serious note, worried about the health implications and find that working under these conditions is highly unacceptable.”

Jennifer James, an associate professor of English, said the smell made her so nauseous that she once had to go home sick.

“I am hoping that this particular issue can be resolved immediately. It’s horrific that we have to work in these conditions,” James wrote in an email to the Colombian College of Arts and Sciences Dean Ben Vinson that was obtained by The Hatchet.

James added that when she held an office on the seventh floor of Phillips Hall, faculty experienced mold and rodent infestation, in addition to dirty bathrooms.

“This is a health matter,” James said. “Workers deserve a clean environment: much better than we are getting. I am sick of it, figuratively and quite literally.”

University spokesman Brett Zongker said the Division of Operations is investigating possible sources of the odor and is in contact with the English department chair and the office manager. Various plumbing, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems have been tested and confirmed as operational, but the source of the smell has not been identified, Zongker said.

Kim Roddis, the chair of the Faculty Senate’s physical facilities committee, said the committee first received complaints about foul smells in Phillips Hall last June and repairs have been ongoing since. Crews have made ventilation and plumbing repairs in the building in recent weeks but have not determined where the smell is coming from, she said.

“There have been a variety of issues,” Roddis said. “The smell has been recurring, but campus facilities has been responsive and they’re trying to fix the problems.”

Marshall Alcorn, the chair of the English department, said faculty reported strange odors March 27. The professors notified the office manager and CCAS administrators, and Facilities Services was also asked to help, Alcorn said.

A FixIt report filed March 28 has not been answered, Alcorn said.

Alcorn added that officials have been responsive to the faculty concerns about the odor. Vinson and Evangeline Downie, the CCAS associate dean of assessment and academic support, personally contacted facilities, he said.

“They sent people out immediately and they have sent people out on those days when we have reports of the smell returning,” Alcorn said. “Evie Downie has stayed on top of the problem, checking in on our condition periodically and seeking to help us and staying in contact with Facilities Services on our behalf.”

Alcorn said Facilities Services visited multiple times and confirmed the smell is sewage but said the source of the smell remains a mystery, and officials have said they plan to bring in outside experts to identify the cause. The smell becomes more detectable some days than others, making it difficult to identify the problem, he said.

“There have been days when the smell is very strong in the morning, but not in the afternoon,” Alcorn said. “It is a mystery to them how to fix the problem.”

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