Howard couple blames carpet for their illnesses

October 29, 1992|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

Wincing as she walks, Marie Fitzgerald shuffles slowly across her kitchen in Howard County to greet a visitor. The leather soles of her shoes scrape against the ceramic tile.

"Look at this," she says, pulling down the collar of her blouse to reveal swelling around her neck. "We've been poisoned."

During the last three years, Mrs. Fitzgerald, 47, and her husband, Chuck, 45, have suffered chronic headaches, sore throats and slurred speech, they say. The culprit, they believe, is the carpet at their recently closed lighting store.

At 9 p.m. tonight on the CBS news magazine show, "Street Stories," the Fitzgeralds will tell their story.

Mrs. Fitzgerald says she has a pain "like someone has stabbed you in the back with a knife." Another pain, below her left knee, causes her occasionally to stumble about her West Friendship home.

The sickness, which no physician has been able to diagnose, has cost the couple their livelihood, they say. Financial losses due to illness forced the Fitzgeralds to shut down their store -- Lighting Limited -- on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City earlier this month.

"Mentally, it's pretty well done us in," Mr. Fitzgerald said.

In addition to the Fitzgeralds, their employees and customers also suffered similar symptoms at their store. A lab in Georgia found no problems with the Fitzgeralds' carpet. But a Massachusetts firm found that air that passed through the carpet killed mice.

Between 1988 and early 1990, 335 people complained to the federal government about health problems they attributed to new carpets, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Most said they suffered headaches, watery eyes and other symptoms soon after having carpets installed.

The commission is studying chemical emissions from carpets to figure out what, if any, hazards they pose. A report is due later this fall.

The Carpet and Rug Institute, the industry's Georgia-based national trade association, says that it is not clear whether the problem is carpets or something they have absorbed after leaving the showroom.

For instance, the carpet could have absorbed pesticide after an exterminator's visit, said Sarah Hicks, an institute spokeswoman.

The Fitzgeralds' problems began in November 1989 within weeks of installing a new brown and white carpet.

Soon, all seven employees had developed symptoms, including dry throats, a burning sensation in their eyes and occasional forgetfulness. Store manager Robert Martin said he began to have sneezing fits and daily headaches.

The couple brought in engineers to test the air conditioning and the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Program to test the air. Neither could find anything wrong.

Frustrated, the Fitzgeralds sold much of their inventory at a loss and moved to another store. But soon after they installed carpeting in the new store, sickness set in again.

"We were going crazy," Mrs. Fitzgerald said.

Mr. Fitzgerald had used a remnant from the old carpet to line the bottom of the company van to transport lamps to the new store. He noticed that the serial number on the bottom of the remnant almost matched the one on the new carpet.

"Bingo!" said Mr. Fitzgerald. "That's when it clicked."

Upon investigation, Mr. Fitzgerald learned that both carpets had been made by the same manufacturer. He declined to name the company, because he has not filed suit, something he says he plans to do.

The couple had some of the carpet tested at Air Quality Sciences, a laboratory in Atlanta. The lab found no problems.

The Fitzgeralds then sent some carpet to Anderson Laboratories Inc. in Massachusetts. The company exposed 16 mice to air blown across a piece of carpet. About half died, according to Mark Goldman, the lab's general manager.

Mr. Goldman said some of the mice suffered from convulsions, tremors, paralysis and upper respiratory problems.

What caused this is not clear yet, he said.

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