Professor accuses HKU of secrecy over formaldehyde threat on new campus

University withholding facts about formaldehyde hazard from furniture on new campus, professor says

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 August, 2012, 4:00am

The University of Hong Kong has been accused of withholding information about the seriousness of health hazards on its new campus, which have made academic staff ill and may affect thousands of students who will enrol next month.

The "sick building syndrome" symptoms, including excessive levels of cancer-causing formaldehyde and unacceptable levels of legionella bacteria, have been found in parts of the university's Centennial Campus in the past two months.

Affected buildings include the faculties of social science, arts and law.

About half the staff of one department are understood to have seen doctors about headaches, rashes, irritated eyes and sore throats.

A university spokesman confirmed there had been complaints about air quality in the new buildings but said it had acted to combat the problem and recent tests had shown air quality to be good.

But a professor in the social science faculty said staff had not been properly informed.

"The way the university is handling the environmental hazard is very bad, holding back information from staff and students," the professor, who declined to be named, said.

He said he had been asked to move to the Jockey Club Tower in June, and since then had suffered from a skin rash, an irritated throat and diarrhoea.

He said he had seen results of indoor air-quality tests that showed formaldehyde levels 30 to 50 times the normal level, the source of which is believed to be the adhesive material on new furniture.

"We are not given the full results of the indoor air-quality tests. They only removed the new furniture a month after our complaint and, ironically, we were not allowed to open the windows to dilute the polluted air," the professor said.

The professor said the pollutants were still infiltrating various rooms through the centralised air-conditioning system, as not all furniture had been removed. He also said the furniture provider might have violated the university's contract, which required it to provide furniture with a formaldehyde level complying with European standards.

Construction work was still going on yesterday as the university rushed to have facilities ready for students. There is a double intake this year, with the final A level students and the first Diploma of Secondary Education graduates both beginning their university studies.

In an e-mail sent to university members yesterday, pro-vice-chancellor John Malpas said some water samples contained legionella bacteria counts above acceptable levels. He said this was not unusual, but did specify the locations of the contamination.

Student union president Dan Chan Koon-hong urged the university to release information to ease people's worries. "The situation is undesirable, as all the new students will be there within a month," he said.