Are employees getting sick from work?
by Marc Chase, Quad-City Times
Jim Wayne pushed up on a bathroom ceiling tile to inspect an air-ventilation unit and water splashed down into the bathtub below. Condensation from that unit and 98 others throughout the building at 605 Main St. in Davenport has seeped inside the ceiling for several years, helping cause what a toxicologist and at least eight employees at the building believe to be a health hazard from toxic molds.
The toxicologist measures the problem with cotton swab samples he took from the building in February. The samples revealed what he says are toxic mold levels as many as 12,000 times higher than those found in an average household. A former secretary at the building, Sue Purdy, measures the problem in nausea, headaches, fatigue and chronic sinus trouble. Now the Iowa Department of Public Health and the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Division, or IOSH, are investigating claims that the molds have led to the illnesses or disabilities of at least eight past and current employees at the building.
All eight workers have filed worker’s compensation claims. Sixty probation employees and 84 prisoners participate in a work-release halfway house program at the Department of Correctional Services facility as part of their prison sentences. Wayne, director of the facility, said his office is concerned enough about the problem that it plans to relocate as soon as a suitable property can be found. But that could take a couple of years.
“In general, I’m greatly concerned,” Wayne said. “It’s a big part of my job to be concerned.” But Wayne and the labor union president who represents workers at the facility want to avoid closing down the building before other quarters can be purchased because it could mean layoffs of state employees. They also argue that a lack of federal or state standards regulating toxic mold makes it difficult to determine how severe mold levels are in the building. “First of all, 95 percent of our work force is not complaining about mold,” said Lewis Washington, president of the facility’s AFSCME union and probation and parole officer.
Two former employees, both of whom claim to suffer from illnesses and disabilities due to toxic molds, said Wayne and other state officials already have enough evidence to warrant leaving the building. In September 2000, Sue Purdy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That diagnosis was discarded a short time later, however, when a spinal tap ruled out the disease. Purdy left her post as a secretary in the building in October 2000 when she said she was too sick to work. She worked in the building for 13 years and has a worker’s compensation claim on file. “I had headaches all the time, fatigue and nausea,” she said. “I had burning in my arms and legs. Doctor after doctor, we just couldn’t determine what was wrong.”
Finally, in April 2000, she said she got her answers when a physician in Albany, N.Y., found evidence of different types of toxic mold. Tests also showed damage to her immune and central nervous systems, Purdy said. “The doctor told me this was absolutely the effects of mold exposure,” she said. Another former employee at the building, Willie Stevenson, blames struggles with brain tumors, a seizure disorder and hearing, eyesight and memory problems on mold levels in the building. A Florida-based toxicologist agrees.
In a letter to Stevenson dated May 8 of this year, Dr. Richard Lipsey, who took mold samples in the building in February, stated: “It is my opinion as a toxicologist that many of your symptoms are indeed the result of your exposure to toxic molds while working at the SJD (605 Main St.) building. The building contained most of the major human pathogenic molds and at very high levels.” Now Stevenson is concerned for other working in the building. “I have so many friends still working in that building I feel like crying,” said Stevenson, who worked as a security guard in the facility between 1987 and April 2001, when he left on disability. “They need to get them out of that building.”
Problems with moisture in the building were apparent almost immediately when Correctional Services began leasing the building – formerly a Quality Inn motel in downtown Davenport
– in 1987. When the department moved into the building, the roof leaked during heavy rains, causing moisture buildup inside, Wayne said. The roof was repaired, but the older ventilation units above the bathroom ceilings in 99 rooms at the building continued to add to the problem. None of the units has drip pans or drainage pipes, causing condensation from valves to leak into the ceiling and ceiling tiles. The moisture provided a perfect environment for mold growth, said Lipsey, who also is a professor of toxicology. Lipsey analyzed mold levels in the building in February for a $3,000 fee, $2,000 of which was paid for by the labor union and $1,000 of which came from an anonymous donor. Swab samples Lipsey took from some of the units and from ceiling tiles revealed high levels of mold considered to be toxic to humans, he said. One office – originally designed as a motel room – contained 6 million mold spores per gram of dust, Lipsey said. The average household has between 300 and 500 spores per gram of dust, he said. “These are among the highest levels of toxic molds I have seen anywhere,” Lipsey told the Quad-City Times last week. Lipsey’s findings were similar to those reported by West Des Moines-based AMI Environmental & Engineering Inc. in June 2001 and Davenport
-based United Services by RG Iossi in November 2001. All three of those environmental testing companies examined the building after Purdy and a co-worker took their own swab samples in the building and had them tested at California-based Digital Diagnostic Systems in February 2001. Those swabs revealed “heavy amounts” of stachybotrys mold, a Digital Diagnostic report states. That mold produces chemicals known as mycotoxins that can cause flu-like symptoms or allergic reactions, headaches, diarrhea, nosebleeds, fatigue and hair loss, according to the Digital Diagnostic report.
Owner says state is responsible
As the director of the facility, Wayne also works in the building and says he is not overly concerned for his own safety. “The problem with the medical issues is when there isn’t clear and convincing proof beyond standard allergy-type reactions,” Wayne said. Still, he said his staff is doing what it can to improve conditions within the building until a new property can be found. Dehumidifiers run in almost every office and maintenance workers have been cleaning the duct work and ventilation units in the rooms. Visible mold growth on the walls and ceilings is wiped clean regularly, Wayne said. The department had planned on buying the building before the mold issue arose but calculated it would have to spend $900,000 to purchase the facility and an additional $2.6 million to clean it up and renovate it. Lipsey concurs that cleaning up the building would be costly. He also said all employees would have to be out of the building during the cleanup.
Davenport lawyer Tom Waterman represents Community Resources Corp., the not-for-profit company that owns the building. He said any cleanup deemed necessary by pending studies of the health department or the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Division would be the responsibility of the building tenants. “The State of Iowa has operational control of the building,” Waterman said. “The owner relies on the tenant to comply with regulations of health and safety.” Waterman did say that such regulations pertaining to mold are unclear or nonexistent. “There’s been no competent medical evidence that any health claims are related to mold,” he said. Purdy disagrees. “I don’t think anyone over there gets the seriousness of this,” she said. “I know some people refute this, but this is a very serious issue. I’m fearful for the people who are still there.”