Expert Commentary

Colleges and Universities: Changing Your "School of Thought" When It Comes to Environmental Liability

When you think of your alma mater, the first thing that comes to mind is usually not hazardous waste or air quality. But these environmental exposures can pose a significant risk to educational institutions and the students, faculty, and members of the public that come in, on, and through campuses everyday. This article examines such exposures and ways to deal with them.

October 2000

When you picture your alma mater, odds are you probably envision rolling landscape, main hall, tradition, mascots, sports, and the list probably goes on. But have you ever envisioned the storage of hazardous chemicals, lab waste, leaking underground tanks, or airborne pathogens? Probably not. If you do, you are definitely the minority. Most of us don't, and because of that we expose ourselves to bodily harm and the institutions to costly lawsuits.

This article will identify some of the major the environmental exposures associated with educational institutions and hopefully reveal the magnitude of the problem.

Hazardous Waste Exposure

In 1999 Yale University paid $348,000 to settle Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allegations that the school jeopardized the safety of nearby residents and students. The violations included storage of hazardous materials in open or damaged containers in areas where students worked, improperly labeling waste containers, and risking explosion by storing incompatible chemicals near each other. Though the school neither denied nor admitted wrongdoing in the settlement, it was an expensive lesson. In a separate but similar case, Stanford University paid nearly $1 million to California regulators in a 1994 settlement.

Educational institutions face many environmental exposures coming from a variety of sources. Most prevalent are the disposal practices of the past. When you think about it, most research labs have historically disposed of waste in underground tanks or 55-gallon drums around campus. Many of these research based or "medical" universities have been around for over 100 years. That's plenty of time for waste to accumulate in some forgotten corner of the campus. And without proper paperwork, manifest, or management, who knows what's contained in these drums?

It is only as the university expands that the hazards are identified and the impact on the surrounding environment and reputation of the school surmised. Now, take this example and multiply it by 10, considering that many colleges and universities have a number of campuses. Each campus is usually managed by different departments, making it even tougher to truly get a handle on the disposal practices.

Air Quality Exposure

Another exposure that is becoming more prevalent is indoor air quality. An unnamed East Coast college found itself in the middle of a cleanup effort ranging around $400,000. It is alleged that the college improperly maintained the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system in a dormitory. Condensation accumulated in the ductwork, and before long, mold and mildew formed. The bacterial contamination was blown through the ventilation system and caused some students to become sick.

An even more obscure event involving air quality occurred in the early 1990s when students were rushed to a hospital in a small town in New York for carbon monoxide inhalation. Apparently the ice-skating arena at the school lacked proper ventilation. When the "Zamboni" resurfaced the ice one night, students were overcome by the fumes from the vehicle. In this case, no one was seriously injured, however, it did not stop the parents of those students from filing a lawsuit against the school.

Other exposures include:

  • Acidic laboratory, x-ray, and maintenance chemicals corroding on-site and off-site sewer pipes
  • Exposed asbestos · Leaking underground and aboveground storage tanks and piping
  • Historical disposal practices for hazardous, infectious, and radioactive waste
  • Improper maintenance of laboratory hood filters
  • Improper maintenance of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) -containing electrical equipment
  • Insufficient chemical pretreatment of wastewater discharge to municipal wastewater treatment plant
  • Inadequate maintenance of HVAC systems, causing sick building syndrome
  • Lack of adequate assessment on properties donated to the school
  • Inadequate records of prior disposal areas
  • Improper building "seal," resulting in water penetration that can lead to microbiological contamination (fungal growth)
  • Inadequate maintenance of animal waste (surface water runoff from agricultural activities, bat and pigeon droppings containing ammonia and bacteria)

There have been many events over the past few years involving the exposures identified above. As you read the following examples, keep one thing in mind-environmental liability does not discriminate. It can occur at the largest university or the smallest state school. It doesn't even have to be a college or university—it can be any secondary school, high school, elementary school, etc. Also, third parties are on these locations every minute of every hour of every day, and it's the duty of the school to protect them from the school's activities that may be hazardous.

Radium 226 Contamination. Over 50 years ago, a university had a Radium 226 spill. Remedial efforts at the time involved collecting contaminated material over a tarp on the ground. During recent construction for a new building on the space where the tarp had been placed, contamination was noted and verified through sampling. Soil remediation and disposal costs exceeded $400,000.

Hydrogen Cyanide Gas Sickens Students and Staff. A student at a small college committed suicide by taking potassium cyanide. The chemical reacted with water in the student's body, creating hydrogen cyanide gas, which sickened nine people including paramedics, college staff, and students. In addition, fumes contaminated linens and other items at the school and hospital. Costs are expected to exceed $20,000 for bodily injury and cleanup.

Sick Building Syndrome. A university had a third-party contractor working in an old building. Several employees of the contractor claimed bodily injury due to sick building syndrome. The claim is presently being investigated.

DemolitionMercury Contamination Leads to Building Demolition. Mercury was discovered in the basement of a sorority house at a university. The mercury had been in a container for many years and had volatized into the woodwork throughout the building, making it virtually impossible to decontaminate the building. The building will need to be demolished. Demolition and disposal costs are expected to exceed $200,000.

Tank Spill. A college experienced a leak from an aboveground storage tank valve. The tank was not properly contained and the spill reached an adjacent river. Total investigation, cleanup, and disposal costs exceeded $74,000.

Managing the Exposures

When it comes to the management of environmental liability at educational institutions, you have to make the investment. Depending on the complexity of the exposure, you may only have to charge the school's risk manager with managing the day-to-day pollution exposures. For larger universities, you may want to designate specific environmental managers or outsource to an environmental consultant. Regardless, the first step would be to obviously identify what hazards exist today—conduct an environmental exposure audit. This is extremely important for those schools having multiple campuses.

Once the audit is complete, an environmental program can be developed. Such programs are based on training and education. It is imperative that proper material and waste handling procedures be developed and training provided to anyone, especially students, who are exposed to the materials. Fire control and cursory emergency response training needs to be provided to anyone in laboratories and other effected buildings on campus. Lastly, consideration should be given to conducting an introductory environmental exposure training course for employees and possibly students, depending on their role within the school.


This is not a truly comprehensive look at how to manage all environmental exposures at an educational institution, just a quick overview. However, if you are either associated directly with a school or are the school's agent/broker, my simple, quick, free advice to you is get some help—quick! If you haven't addressed the environmental hazards (and I'm not talking about just purchasing pollution insurance) that exist, it's only a matter of time before something does occur. And when that happens, you want to at least make it look like you knew what was going on.

Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

Like This Article?

IRMI Update

Dive into thought-provoking industry commentary every other week, including links to free articles from industry experts. Discover practical risk management tips, insight on important case law and be the first to receive important news regarding IRMI products and events.

Learn More