Strong odor prompts photo lab to call firemen

photo by Matthew Nemeth Pittsburgh firefighter exits Academic Hall after responding to a chemical incident in the fifth floor photo lab Monday.

photo by Matthew Nemeth
Pittsburgh firefighter exits Academic Hall after responding to a chemical incident in the fifth floor photo lab Monday.

Originally published in The Globe September 10, 2014

Police, firemen and a hazmat team responded to a chemical incident in Academic Hall Monday evening.

“It was just an odor basically,” said Bob Farrow, Chief of the City of Pittsburgh Hazmat Team on Monday after the incident. “A buildup of acetic acid.”

Michael Gregory, a photography work study, was the student who first noticed the smell.

“It was an issue with one of our more low-tech machines,” said Gregory in Lawrence Hall Monday. “It had been causing a stink a couple times, but none of us noticed it wasn’t draining properly.”

At approximately 4:00pm, Gregory noticed the smell was persistent and decided to call in professor of photography Chris Rolinson.

“It was a malfunction in the silver recovery tanks,” said Rolinson in a phone interview Monday. “It dried out over the summer and a clog caused the buildup of chemicals. That caused the odor.”

Rolinson, Gregory and an adjunct professor then attempted to clean and drain the equipment, but when they took apart the mechanism, the odor became overwhelming.

“I had never smelled chemistry that strong,” Gregory said. “I was instantly hit with a migraine.”

They then got everyone else in the lab out, and made sure the area was ventilated.

“And then we called for people more qualified,” Gregory said.

According to Farrow, there was “very little danger.”

“There was an irritating vinegar smell,” Farrow said. “But no real concern about the health effects.”

Director of Safety and Security Bernie Merrick agreed.

“It was not a hazardous situation,” said Merrick in his Frontier Hall office on Tuesday. “More of a nuisance.”

The hazmat team separated the containers and placed them in their sealed drums to contain them. The room was ventilated, and the walls and floor will have to be washed, according to Farrow, but “they’ll be back in business shortly.”

“They did a good job isolating the room and calling us,” Farrow said.

“I want to praise Michael for thinking on his feet,” Rolinson said. “He did the right thing as a work study.”

The general consensus is that the situation was handled quickly, calmly and correctly.

“We have policies and practices in place to address these kinds of situations,” Merrik said. “It was handled as it was supposed to be.”

According to Rolinson, the damages were not extensive.

“The chemicals were already used at this point,” Rolinson said. “We’re gonna have to replace the tank… we’re only talking about 180 bucks.”

However, according to Rolinson there will be a few changes as a result of this incident.

“We can’t let them sit at summer, or over the winter,” Rolinson said.

According to Rolinson, these tanks will now be changed every semester.

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