By Jill Leavey, Assistant News Editor
“The three of us started violently coughing. It felt like something was in my lungs,” said Amanda Kruse, a sophomore public relations major. She was describing a health scare that occurred at Hofstra USA (HofUSA) on Tuesday, Sept. 3 around 11 p.m. Fire officials believe the incident was caused by paint fumes.
Approximately 40 people were in Smashburger at the time, eating late night dinners and gathering for group study sessions when students and employees abruptly began to erupt in coughing fits. Within minutes, Hofstra’s Department of Public Safety, Nassau County Police Department (NCPD) and local fire departments responded to the chaotic scene after the first caller reported they thought people were ill from pepper spray. Two employees were treated at local hospitals.
According to firsthand accounts, the coughing started in the waiting area of Smashburger, located near the counter and window to the kitchen. It then proceeded to spread throughout the restaurant, and quickly to the dining area where most of the patrons were seated. “You really knew something was wrong when the employees at Smashburger started violently coughing then Public Safety came and told everyone to get out,” said Annalisa Piccolo, a junior community health major.
“Public Safety came in a good like minute or two. They were pretty fast,” Kruse said.
Those who were involved were not informed by officials what the source of their illnesses was. “Every time I asked they said they have to get a special unit in to see exactly what was released. We don’t really know,” said Victoria Eppstein, a sophomore marketing major.
For individuals like Piccolo, Kruse and Eppstein who refused medical attention, they were directed by officials to complete forms stating that they opted to not be treated. All individuals affected were asked to provide their contact information so Public Safety can follow up as more details emerge.
Greek life and other student organizations were working both in and outside the HofUSA building. They used art supplies made with potentially hazardous materials to construct floats for Fall Fest; students were instructed to use spray paint and aerosols outdoors.
Sarah Schuld, a junior early childhood/childhood education major, was working on her exhibit for Delta Gamma at the time of the incident. “I personally think it was not the fault of oil based paint. When I left build there was no one using paint inside aside from our team and we use craft paint from a teacher supply store,” Schuld said.
“It was a burning sensation that hit you once you took a breath in and it made your eyes water,” she said.
Hofstra officials sent a mass email to students Tuesday night about an hour after the fire department responded, saying that the noxious odor was “the result of oil based paint being used during float building.” “When I got the email from P Safe I felt lied to because I knew that fumes from oil paint couldn’t have caused that evacuation,” Schuld said.
The university released a statement the following day confirming that the coughing was likely induced by paint fumes. “Fire officials determined that the odors were paint fumes, possibly from oil-based paint,” said Assistant Vice President of University Relations Karla Schuster.
Public Safety nor the responding fire departments can definitively confirm that the incident was caused by paint, however. “I don’t think we’ll ever really know, but it’s a likely explanation that it was because of oil-based paint,” said Director of Public Safety Karen O’Callaghan.
Additionally, she said the renovation of HofUSA may have contributed to how and why this occurred. “It was actually the Fire Department assessment that most likely what had occurred that paint might have been used in the lower part of HofUSA, and some of that paint might have been oil-based paint that was used inside,” O’Callaghan said.
The university would like to implement preventative measures to ensure that this will not happen again. “The next step, my recommendation to OSLE is that no oil-based paint will be allowed and then we have to monitor and make sure nobody is using spray paint inside. So we’ll be have follow up discussions to talk about how to avoid this,” O’Callaghan said.
NCPD and the responding fire departments could not be reached for comment.