Moldy building becomes a case study
Danbury, Connecticut – Across the country, headlines tell the horror stories of indoor mold: Schools are closed; families abandon homes with breakfast dishes still in the sink; Ed McMahon’s dog dies; lawsuits by sick workers threaten to bankrupt businesses.
The tales are terrifying and true. Indoor mold a genuine health threat that is turning into a national health crisis at epidemic proportions. Ethel Dorsey, a 49-year-old secretary from Farmington, may help national scientists find some answers. Dorsey is among 250 employees of the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services who are participating in a government-sponsored study the relationship between mold-infested office buildings and work-related respiratory illness. “Single case reports are numerous; actual case studies are few and far between,” said Jean Cox-Ganser, an epidemiologist with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “We’re trying to fill in some gaps.” Will the nation or state report their findings to the public? Probably not. To admit liability, especially the neurological causation of mold is a slippery slope that no one wants to admit to.
The tax department’s headquarters at 25 Sigourney St. is one of a handful of buildings across the country that NIOSH, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has selected for testing. The building meets two important criteria: An unusually high number of workers there are sick, and the state is spending millions of dollars trying to fix the 20-story building. “We wanted to look at a building where the owner had money for remediation so we could possibly look at before and after,” Cox-Ganser said.
While health problems in the modern brick-and-glass tower probably date to the time it opened in the 1980s, complaints by state workers came to a head in the late summer of 2001 – almost exactly a year ago. Alarmed by reports of hacking coughs, shortness of breath, sinus infections, dizziness, burning eyes, headaches, acid reflux, vomiting, and other serious health problems, union representatives asked NIOSH to perform a routine health hazard evaluation. Cox-Ganser, the epidemiologist who did the initial review last year, found that the rate of asthma among workers at 25 Sigourney St. was at least one-third higher than the state average, with 12 percent of building workers reporting current asthma, compared with 7.8 percent of the state’s general population. That came as no surprise to building workers who have been flocking to the occupational and environmental health clinic at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington.
Ethel Dorsey is among them. Most are veterans of the tax department and moved to the top five floors of 25 Sigourney St. in 1995, shortly after the state bought the building from Xerox Corp. for $42.6 million. “I thought I had a cold. My breathing was so bad I had to prop myself up [in bed] to breathe,” said Dorsey, who since has been diagnosed with occupational lung disease and has moved to another building. Dorsey is among 23 of the tax department’s 730 workers at Sigourney Street who have had their desks moved to satellite locations after complaining of building-related illness. But others have remained in the building, using medication to treat some of their symptoms. Joe Thomas, a division chief in charge of auditing tax returns, continues to work on the building’s 17th floor despite building-related asthma. Thomas, a former marathon runner, said he has always felt fine while running. Inside the building he feels heaviness in his chest and wheezing. Like others, his voice becomes raspy at the end of the day. For a few months his symptoms seemed to subside, Thomas said, probably because he was away from the building a lot. But with the long hours he recently has worked preparing for the state’s newly announced tax amnesty, he has started having trouble breathing again. Although Thomas is convinced that his symptoms are building-related and he fears becoming chronically debilitated, he said he would be unable to supervise his 60-member staff from home or a remote location. Fears are more related to the neurological impairment they may endure permanently.
State Public Works Commissioner T. R. Anson, who is responsible for maintaining state buildings, acknowledged that water damage has been a vexing problem at 25 Sigourney St. But he said he is not convinced that mold is making the employees sick. Leaks plagued the building from the beginning. Every time it rained, water soaked the new tax offices, making carpets squishy and dampening the walls. Wallpaper in the bathrooms peeled. Wallboard deteriorated. Files of paperwork were soggy. The environment was the perfect breeding ground for the mold and bacteria that federal investigators now hope to prove – or disprove – can make susceptible people very sick. Outdoors, mold is everywhere and causes few problems, short of a little sneezing and wheezing when counts are high. Only recently have scientists begun to suspect that the benign and omnipresent fungi can become harmful when they move indoors and begin to feed voraciously on newer building materials such as wallboard and cellulose insulation.
Reports of mold-related indoor illness date back to the 1970s, when the energy crisis and advances in building technology sparked a nationwide switch from drafty wood-and-brick structures to air-tight, steel-beamed buildings filled with wallboard and other synthetic materials. While the buildings may be airtight, it remains difficult to make them watertight. And the newer materials soak up rainwater like a sponge. “Mold needs three primary things,” said Gil Cormier, president of Occupational Risk Control Services, a New Britain company that specializes in identifying and fixing indoor air problems. “Spores, which are everywhere; nutrients, such as dust; and water. If they don’t have water, they cannot grow.” Wet carpets, he said, pose an additional problem. They can become a breeding ground for gram-negative bacteria, a type of germ different from those found in the human body.
Gram-negative bacteria can affect the immune systems of sensitive people. While there are no standards for acceptable indoor levels of mold or gram-negative bacteria, air and dust samples from 25 Sigourney St. have shown high enough levels of both to cause concern. Dr. Eileen Storey, director of the Center for Indoor Environments and Health at the UConn Health Center, said she is convinced that the tax department building is making some tax department workers very sick. About 100 workers from 25 Sigourney St. are patients at Storey’s clinic. She said some are “the worried well,” but a significant number have diagnosable lung problems that she thinks are linked to their workplace. So many tax department workers have sought help at the clinic that doctors have added an extra half-day of office hours to accommodate them, Storey said. Some of the sick workers have been moved to other buildings and a few are at home, collecting workers’ compensation. State programs who insure Worker’s Compensation are becoming very wise to mycotoxicosis [mold-related illness] and are learning how to instruct their physicians to deny symptoms, thus benefits. 99% of all mycotoxicosis cases are being denied as more and more people are being affected by this national health crisis.
Last year , the state of Connecticut processed 128 workers’ compensation claims for state tax department workers – although not all of those workers are out sick. Nonetheless, the number of claims filed in 2001 was more than twice the number of claims filed by workers at the state Department of Public Health, a department of comparable size. So far this year, 44 workers’ compensation claims have been filed by tax department workers, about the same as the number of claims filed by the health department, which is not believed to occupy a sick building. Union leaders claim that while state Tax Commissioner Gene Gavin has been sensitive to individual workers, state leaders have missed the big picture.
By next year, the state will have spent more than $6 million to improve ventilation and stop the leaks at 25 Sigourney St. But Mike Winkler, president of the state workers’ union representing accountants, said the work should not be done with employees in the building. “Personally, I want all of us out of the building,” Winkler said. The longer healthy employees remain there, he said, the greater the risk that more will get sick. Anson called any talk of moving employees premature. While he acknowledged that there are no standards for indoor mold, he said the air inside 25 Sigourney has been tested and meets all requirements. “We know the air inside that building is better than the air outside the facility,” Anson said. Meanwhile, Ethel Dorsey sits at a new desk in a converted state Department of Transportation garage in Wethersfield, miles from her old boss, Joe Thomas. She now does data entry for another department because she can no longer perform her secretarial duties from a remote location.
In May, scientists from NIOSH asked her – along with 249 other tax department workers, some sick, some not – to spend hours completing a medical history questionnaire and taking allergy and lung-function tests. In one, she was asked to inhale an irritant that would set off asthma symptoms in people whose lungs are sensitive to contaminants in the air. She made it through four rounds of increasing levels of irritation before she had to be given a special medication to open her airways. She said she was sick for days after that. NIOSH investigators also took air and dust samples from work stations, looked for water damage in the building and used a scope to look for mold inside the walls. Although test subjects can expect to receive their individual results within a few months, Cox-Ganser said a report that might link the building to asthma “will take some time.” Dorsey, who ate lunch every day in a conference room where Stachybotrys chartarum, a particularly dangerous form of mold, was found, said she is just glad that somebody is finally taking an interest. “I was willing to participate even if it meant it would not benefit me,” she said. Dorsey and about a dozen of her fellow tax department colleagues interviewed over the past two weeks said quitting is not an option. They’re going to stay as a matter of principle, and practicality. “I got sick through no fault of my own,” Dorsey said. “At my age it’s not going to be easy to get another job, particularly at the pay I’m making. I’ve got 15, 16 years of state service. I don’t feel that I should have to throw that away.”
After the state of Connecticut makes an issue of this building we doubt anything will be said of the study or the remediation. NIOSH has not appeared to care about workers and mold in the past before, at least in my opinion.