Lingering concerns about health risks prompt move; dangerous toxins could be present
by April Simun and Mike Ramsey – Staff Writers, The State
Posted on Sat, Aug. 10, 2002
LEXINGTON COUNTY – Lexington County’s courthouse was shut down at 5 p.m. Friday for the second time in less than nine months so health workers can look for mold.
Circuit Judge Marc Westbrook, the county’s chief administrative judge, ordered the courthouse and adjacent solicitor’s office closed until Aug. 26. His order was signed by S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, who shut the courthouse in December for mold cleanup.
Toal and county officials said they didn’t act because of findings this week of possible toxic molds in the courthouse. That study was commissioned by attorney Richard Breibart, who’s representing county employees with mold complaints.
Breibart’s client, solicitor’s case manager Linda W. Cooley, filed a workers’ compensation complaint June 28. And Breibart said he represents 40 other employees who have various ailments and who plan to file complaints early next week.
The report, prepared by scientist Lee Capell with Environmental Studies & Engineering Inc., lists five types of mold found July 31 and Aug. 1 in the courthouse and solicitor’s office.
Two of the molds can have strands that produce toxins unhealthy to humans.
But the study doesn’t list quantities found. And some experts say that’s key in determining health risks.
Toal said she got involved before she received a copy of the report because she has had questions about whether there is still a risk in the building, She said she planned last week to meet Thursday afternoon with Westbrook, county administrator Art Brooks, council chairman Bill Banning and a county attorney.
Concern has lingered since officials found mold last fall, after workers complained of allergy-like symptoms.
The building opened in 1940 at the intersection of U.S. 1 and S.C. 6. A new courthouse is under construction just across the street. For now, about 90 employees work in the solicitor’s office and courthouse.
“I’ve been getting requests from various court employees from my department asking that they not be assigned to Lexington,” Toal said.
Officials meeting with her Thursday agreed to close the courthouse, she said.
County officials say they’re hiring two companies to do testing. Risk Tech consultants, formerly Azimuth Consultants of Charleston, is the same company the county paid $400,000 to clean mold last fall. The other is PathCon Laboratories in Atlanta.
Both companies will take separate samples Monday and Tuesday, said Richard Bennett, chief science officer for Risk Tech. Results should be back in two weeks. Westbrook said if results aren’t back in time or if cleanup is needed, the reopening of the courthouse will be delayed.
This time, under the direction of the county, the companies will take more samples in more places, Bennett said. A study budget calls for looking at about 25 sites and taking about three samples from each. That’s about double what was done last time.
The county will pay about $30,000 for the study, Brooks said. Officials had planned to spend about $3,000 in August for routine follow-up studies since the building reopened after cleanup Jan. 2. But after Toal’s meeting, they decided to do more sooner.
Several officials said they’re withholding judgment of Risk Tech’s work until they get new study results.
“It’s such a touchy legal situation,” Councilman David James said.
The company came highly recommended, Brooks said.
It has worked on several hospitals and successfully coordinated the $7.5 million cleanup of Buena Vista Elementary School in Greenville in 1999. The school required massive repairs after a mold problem invaded the heating and air-conditioning system.
Bennett said his company’s study last fall was adequate.
“But I think we’re going an extra measure here just to make sure that everybody is comfortable with the data,” he said.
Westbrook held a special meeting for courthouse employees Friday afternoon to tell them of the shutdown.
“I don’t think anybody knows to what extent (the mold) is present,” he told them. “Your health and safety is going to be the first thing we look at.”
All court cases will be canceled and rescheduled, Westbrook said. A skeleton crew, likely made up of employee volunteers, will staff the offices of the clerk of court and probate court .
When the courthouse was closed in December, the closing of those offices was a “nightmare,” Westbrook said.
If the offices were closed again, people would be unable to pay fines or child support or do real-estate research necessary to buy land.
The group of about 50 employees would not comment to members of the media. But several jokingly referred to the movie “Silkwood,” based on the true story of employees poisoned at their workplace.
Westbrook told workers to see him if they felt ill or were having health problems they thought were related to the building.
Westbrook said he has not had health problems after working in there 19 years. But he said some people are sensitive to it, and others are not.
Mycologist Gerald Cowley of the University of South Carolina biology department said the molds listed in Capell’s report are most apt to cause allergy-like symptoms. Some strands of some of the molds can rarely cause more serious diseases.
The molds are:
- Cladosporium, the mold Risk Tech found in large amounts at the courthouse last fall, which commonly causes allergic symptoms;
- Alternaria, a notorious allergen, more likely to blow into a building than grow inside;
- ;Curvularia, a possible allergen;
- Penicillium, found nearly everywhere, can cause mold diseases in people with low immunities, some strands can produce toxins, other strands are used to flavor cheese and make penicillin;
- Aspergillus, common in the environment, can cause mold diseases in people with low immunities, has one strand that in rare cases can cause lung problems, and has some strands that very rarely cause cancer.
Bennett said that without knowing quantities, it’s impossible to know actual risks.
“These molds exist everywhere in nature,” he said. “The toxic molds are in every building in this country.”
Courthouse employees unable to go to their offices will be encouraged to work from home when possible, Westbrook said. Some offices also might look for alternate locations.
Employees will be paid normally while the courthouse is closed, Brooks said.