A Sacramento State chemical spill has lab techs questioning their workplace safety

A chemical spill at Sacramento State last year has led to questions about whether the university is putting its lab workers at risk from exposure to hazardous substances.
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A chemical spill at Sacramento State last year has led to questions about whether the university is putting its lab workers at risk from exposure to hazardous substances.
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Sacramento State workers say lab chemicals caused fertility problems, seek $80 million

By Diana Lambert

dlambert@sacbee.com

December 28, 2017 09:35 AM

Four Sacramento State employees are asking the university to pay $80 million in damages because of fertility problems they say resulted from exposure to hazardous chemicals in the science building.

Christopher Martinez, Michelle Watterson and Barbara Coulombe work in chemical stockrooms with toxic fumes and poor ventilation that have caused all of them to become ill, according to claims filed with California State University on Dec. 13.

Watterson’s claim says chemical exposure has caused multiple miscarriages, as well as other ailments. Martinez’s claim says he became infertile. And Coulombe’s says she suffered ailments, including one that led to organ damage.

Kathleen Le, who works in an office directly behind one of the stockrooms, also has had a miscarriage and fertility problems, among other health problems, according to her claim.

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Claims are generally filed with public agencies as a precursor to a lawsuit. The claims are asking for $20 million per claimant for a total of $80 million.

“Damages amounts sought as part of the coming civil suit will be greater,” said attorney Kevin Hughey of the Hughey Law Group, which is representing the four complainants.

The Sacramento Bee reported in May on the staff’s unsafe exposure to chemicals and allegations that they suffered a series of health problems as a result.

Their filings paint a picture of stockrooms in the university’s Sequoia building filled floor to ceiling with dangerous chemicals. “Chemicals stored in the stockrooms are in liquid form; however, the containers rest on aged wooden shelves and plastic or other counter spaces, all of which are in various states of dilapidation or disrepair,” it reads.

Lab workers interviewed in May said they work in areas so poorly ventilated that acidic fumes corrode metal and rubber.

No one at the university was available to comment on the claims during the holiday break, but campus officials said in May there was “no evidence of an ongoing hazard,” pointing to a UCLA study of air quality in Sacramento State’s chemistry stockrooms.

The claim also cites a chemical spill in the science building in May 2016 that exposed the lab employees to hazardous chemicals. Lab staff told The Bee that faculty and staff at the university misled them about the type of chemicals spilled, causing them to use the wrong protective gear and putting them at risk.

An investigation into the incident resulted in a report on Jan. 17. The university has made public only a heavily redacted version, despite repeated requests for the complete report from the chemistry department staff, according to the claim.

It also says the university system, as well as the Sacramento campus, lacks adequate safety coordination or protocols in the science department.

The California State University Employees Union, which represents the lab technicians, has filed multiple grievances questioning the safety of employees working in the stockrooms and the protocols for dealing with hazardous materials throughout the campus.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert