'Sick building' defies diagnosis

April 21, 1991|By Michael K. Burns

James Bruggy points in dismay at a seating chart of the ground floor of the Meadows East Building. Each of the 30 names written on the diagram represents a co-worker who has had a serious medical problem -- fungus balls and growths inside their heads, respiratory and eye infections, skin rashes and swelling, cancer.

The name of Maura McHale Allison, who worked there less than three years, is the most recent addition. She transferred to another building on the advice of her physician three weeks ago after developing severe headaches and allergic reactions.

"This has been going on for five years, and it hasn't stopped," sighed Mr. Bruggy, a program analyst with the U.S. Health Care Financing Administration in Woodlawn who has charted the puzzling medical cases that many of the victims blame on the building where they worked.

Despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in environmental engineering improvements and a half-dozen health studies that have failed to detect a causal link, the "sick building syndrome" label still sticks to the four-story, glass-faced structure on Security Boulevard.

Last month, another health investigator finished a study that again found no specific cause for the serious medical problems reported among two dozen HCFA workers there.

Industrial hygienist Oneil M. Banks of Bel Air said there were indications of previous fungus contamination that could have caused some of the illnesses.

But he said that there was no chemical or biological contaminant present when he tested over the past five months and that no further testing for fungus was necessary.

"I don't know if they'll ever find the cause, but something is there," said Mr. Bruggy, who is union shop steward for Local 1923, American Federation of Government Employees, in the Meadows East Building.

John Tamberrino, a methods analyst who was the first to get a medical transfer to another HCFA building back in 1986, said, "I'm lucky I got the hell out of there when I did before something more serious happened." He developed eye inflammation, sinus problems and nosebleeds that his doctor attributed to hypersensitive allergies that seemed to be triggered by his working in the building.

"I'm certainly better off now with my health," he said, although the allergic reactions that first appeared when he worked in Meadows East occasionally recur.

HCFA has transferred at least 27 employees with documented medical complaints to other buildings since 1986, the union says. Others have retired after medical treatment or have found jobs in other HCFA buildings. Nearly 50 employees have reported significant health problems that may be linked to their workplace.

Two years ago, HCFA agreed to move all 700 employees out of the leased Meadows East Building, not because of proven health hazards but because of widespread employee worries.

But the General Services Administration, the government's leasing agency, could not find an alternative location within its budget. And the Meadows East owners hired influential Washington lobbyist-lawyer Paul Laxalt to dissuade GSA from excluding their building from consideration.

So GSA reversed itself and declared "an insufficient pattern" of worker sickness to warrant disqualification.

The expiring lease was renegotiated to extend into 1995, with an option to move out earlier if HCFA can complete its planned consolidated facilities before then.

As part of the lease agreement, the ventilation system motor was beefed up, the intake air chute was raised 20 feet from its basement-level location, the air vents were scrubbed, and a new air quality monitoring program was instituted.

The Banks investigation was made after these improvements. Previous studies of the building's air quality, including one by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, found no specific source for the severe medical complaints, although they had faulted an antiquated, inadequate air intake system for general employee discomfort.

Looking at nine work areas on the ground floor, where the overwhelming majority of medical complaints originated, Dr. Banks found no link between the reported illnesses and gases, fungus or other conditions present in the building.

Fungal growths and ear-eye-nose and sinus infections could be caused by airborne mold or bacteria, Dr. Banks noted, but those microorganisms were not found at the work sites of employees reporting those illnesses.

One fungus was found on the leaf of a potted plant brought in by an employee.

Dr. Banks also found the common fungus, Aspergillus niger, in the air near a cubicle where two employees who died of cancers and a third who developed a bad case of pleurisy had worked. But those medical conditions would not result from the fungus, Dr. Banks stated. He added:

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