Students, staff sick of ‘appalling’ smell at YK Aurora College campus
An overpowering glycol smell caused students at Aurora College’s Yellowknife campus to complain of nausea on Monday. Staff said odours have been a problem for years.
While the territory tries to create a new polytechnic university, students told Cabin Radio the recurring smell at the NWT’s existing Yellowknife college campus is “appalling,” leaving them barely able to work.
Monday’s smell was most pronounced on the first floor of the college and neighbouring Northern United Place when Cabin Radio visited just before noon.
Several students describing feeling sick.
Glycol problems in the building have been going on for years. In recent months, near-weekly emails have warned students each time the odour reappears.
“Some of the systems are now showing their age,” said Lynn Morris Jamieson, Aurora College’s acting vice-president of student affairs, adding the smell “dissipates fairly quickly after the issue has been identified and that’s what happened today.”
She said: “We’re just trying to try to deal with every situation as it comes up, as immediately, effectively, and efficiently as we possibly could.”
Asked if she felt students’ ability to learn was being affected, Morris Jamieson said: “I certainly haven’t received a whole lot of complaints from students.”
The building’s landlord does not consider the smell harmful to health and says steps are taken to minimize its impact.
The odour comes from propylene glycol, used in the heating system, said Gail Leonardis – executive director of the NWT Community Services Corporation, which owns the downtown Yellowknife building.
The landlord says the building can’t function without the glycol, which is heated to between 82C and 104C then pushed through heating lines to protect them in cold weather.
Leonardis says a pump that circulates heat in the building began to leak on Monday, causing the latest smell. Speaking shortly after noon, she said the leak had been fixed.
Students ‘try to concentrate while shivering’
Compounding the smell and further enraging students, heat to the same building had been shut off that morning.
One student – who, like all students and staff interviewed for this report, asked not to be named – said their class had not been told about the heating problem by college administrators.
Students ended up “in a freezing cold classroom, wearing parkas and mitts, trying to concentrate while shivering,” they said.
A second student said the smell had emerged up to three times a week since they began taking classes at the college in September. A third student estimated the smell reappeared roughly once each week.
Cabin Radio understands one teacher is so sensitive to the smell that they are forced to leave their classroom any time it occurs.
“It’s difficult to attend class and concentrate when you’re constantly getting headaches from leaks in the building,” one student told Cabin Radio by email.
“The school will then send us emails reminding us not to wear scents because people have allergies – but they have done nothing to address the constant glycol leaks that our school faces.”
Morris Jamieson said: “We do have individuals who go home at times, and work from home, because of their extreme sensitivity.”
A Facebook post showing screenshots of one student’s email inbox appeared to show more than 20 emails from college staff related to glycol smells or apparent leaks, all sent between September 2019 and February 2020.
Monday morning’s latest email, from director of student services Perez Oyugi, warned: “There will likely be a glycol smell around the lobby and elevators. Individuals with environmental sensitivities are advised to avoid those areas until the situation is rectified.”
‘This building is maintained well’
The building in question includes Northern United Place’s 84 apartments – rented to individuals and families making less than $45,000 per year, with 36 units earmarked for people aged 65 and over. Aurora College rents 26,748 square feet in commercial space and 40 units of student housing, providing 75 percent of the landlord’s operating revenue.
Leonardis said that while the odour may affect some people, she believes the glycol smell has no negative effect on human health.
“They’re not being exposed to the glycol itself, which, by the way, is a food-grade glycol,” she told Cabin Radio. “It is approved by Health Canada to be put into food products.”
Leonardis said occupants of the building are “perfectly fine” to remain inside when leaks happen, without additional health precautions.
A notice inside Aurora College apologizes for a lack of heat in the building on February 17, 2020. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
“The building is not falling apart, the heating lines are not failing,” she said. “This building is maintained well, it’s been upgraded, there have been all kinds of things done in the building.”
When smells occur, Leonardis said, fresh air is circulated into the building or parts are shut down so the smell doesn’t spread.
There are also procedures in place, she said, to warn the college when maintenance work may result in a smell.
The corporation believes some of the smell issues may stem from a drain line underneath the building’s elevators. Leonardis said parts to address that problem “are on order.”
Air quality assessments carried out
Leonardis said smells had been an issue for the past two winters. Others said glycol leaks and odours were a longstanding concern at the campus.
“It happened numerous times,” said Jane Arychuk, who was Aurora College’s president between 2012 and 2018.
“The college dealt with the landlord numerous times. The pipes in the building are old and cracking in different places,” Arychuk said.
“We were told [the smell] only affects people who have known scent allergies and is just an annoyance to others. Health people were brought in regularly to do air checks when leaks occurred.”
Leonardis provided records of an air quality check conducted in February 2019.
The assessment showed levels of “volatile organic compounds” (of the kind given off by glycol) in the building’s air were “in the low range.” The report, by a company named Air Quality Canada, concluded there were no “specific indoor air quality problems” and no remedial action was needed.
However, the report did say problems with air quality “may be transient and difficult to identify without extensive, long-term monitoring.”
The issue was high-profile enough to warrant a letter to Tom Weegar within days of his hiring as Aurora College’s president in March 2019. In that letter, the landlord documented a range of actions being taken to mitigate the problem.
Landlord warns of ‘consequences’
A further, more recent letter – sent by the NWT Community Services Corporation to Aurora College last week – noted there were still “many conversations” taking place about glycol leaks and smells.
The letter from the landlord lists a range of meetings and inspections since December 2019, when boiler repair work appears to have triggered an odour throughout the building.
The landlord says the education minister toured the building in January, “to which we were advised we would be invited but subsequently were not invited.” (Cabin Radio approached the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment for comment. The department referred questions to Aurora College.)
The landlord’s most recent letter states the NWT government’s risk managers had, in late January, expressed their satisfaction that “all appropriate measures were being taken to deal with the leaks as they occur” and no areas of concern were evident.
The letter insists pipes in the building are not leaking and the presence of a smell does not mean a leak must be present. “There have been no leaks in the pipes since the winter of 2016,” the letter states.
However, the landlord suggests furniture in offices and classrooms blocks access to heating lines – meaning delays when trying to respond to other sources of leaks.
The landlord goes on to warn Aurora College that there may be “consequences” if staff at the college continue to claim the building’s pipes are leaking.
A part-time instructor at the college had told many people that Northern United Place “is falling apart and they have glycol leaks every day which is making people sick,” the letter recounted. The landlord added: “If such falsehoods continue to be shared, there may be other consequences.”
Concerns expressed to Cabin Radio on Monday extended beyond the smell to the overall condition of the campus.
A parent of two Aurora College students, who again requested not to be named, said her children receive “excellent” programming – but the state of the Yellowknife campus is “outrageous.”
“I don’t think that these kids should have to go, ‘Oh, this is our life. This is the type of educational institution that we have to tolerate because we’re choosing to go to school in the North,'” the parent said.
In an email to Cabin Radio, a student said they perceived an “appalling” lack of concern about building occupants’ health.
“No one deserves to have their education compromised because of a building that can’t support day-to-day use without breaking down, and administration that cannot advocate for better conditions for its students,” they wrote.
Morris Jamieson, speaking for the college, said it was too early to say whether the transformation into a polytechnic would involve a move away from the facility. (The landlord has already begun planning for that eventuality.)
Union of Northern Workers (UNW) leader Todd Parsons said in a statement: “The health and safety of workers is always one of our top priorities. The UNW has heard from numerous members and is aware that there are issues with the building that houses the Aurora College Campus in Yellowknife, and we are working closely with our members to address their concerns.”
Maggie Collins, a spokesperson for the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission (WSCC), told Cabin Radio: “I can confirm that the WSCC is working with the management of Aurora College to ensure any health and safety issues are identified and addressed.
“The WSCC can’t provide information on individual accounts or claims against particular employers so no further comment is available,” said Collins.
“It might be of interest to your readers and listeners that the WSCC has a 24-hour incident reporting line 1-800-661-0792 and an online reporting tool to enable people to provide information regarding any unsafe activities witnessed or to discuss specific incidents with our occupational health and safety inspectors.”