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Tossing out toxins

Professor proposes to ban toxic dry-erase markers from classrooms

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After months of living in pain, associate professor of geography and development Marv Waterstone thinks he may have found the cause for the mysterious bouts of illness he experienced while teaching at the UA.

Dry-erase markers.

Now, Waterstone is doing what he can to ban all markers containing sensitive toxins from the entire campus.

Dizziness, shortness of breath, headaches and nausea were a few of the symptoms Waterstone experienced at random intervals whenever he was in his classroom. Once it started to interfere with his ability to teach, he decided to figure out what was making him sick.

“Every time I went outside I felt better,” he said, “and it was clear to me that it wasn’t coming from my office.”

When he approached the whiteboard in his classroom, he noticed the symptoms manifesting, and after doing some research on the Internet, he diagnosed himself with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, or MCS. The sensitivities of this syndrome are similar to allergies, but also cause unusual symptoms like those Waterstone experienced.

“People have symptoms of MCS, but don’t know how to associate the cause,” Waterstone said.

Perfumes, pesticides, cigarettes and dry-erase markers are some of the most common triggers for an MCS attack. Dry-erase markers containing the organic chemicals xylene and toluene are what Waterstone pinpointed for causing his symptoms. An overexposure to these chemicals result in having similar effects as drinking large amounts of alcohol on the brain.

On Feb. 6, Waterstone asked the Faculty Senate to propose a resolution that the campus only allow non-toxic dry-erase markers be purchased and used in classrooms.

“There is a range of sensitivities and a range of chemicals on this campus,” Waterstone said, “which all produce differential effects.”

The resolution passed, and affiliates of the UofA Bookstore were quick to comply with Waterstone’s request. Bookstore employees examined all of its products and pulled anything off the shelves containing toxic chemicals.

“We didn’t have to be pushed to get this done,” said Frank Farias, associate vice president of student affairs. “When the community has a need, we will respond almost instantly.”

Of the products examined, only two were found to contain the sensitive toxins Waterstone was concerned about. A Staples generic brand of dry-erase markers and a package of whiteboards containing markers with unmarked ingredients were removed from stock.

“This was very minimal,” said Debby Shively, the director of UA Bookstores. “We already have plenty alternatives in place.”

Waterstone’s only concern now is whether other faculty members will comply with the resolution and bring non-toxic dry-erase markers to their classes from now on. Since he asked that the resolution be adopted as a “campuswide policy,” Waterstone said he hopes that all faculty members will make the “casual adjustment” in switching marker brands in order to make his job more tolerable.

“All I’m really trying to do is get myself back in the classroom,” he said.


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