SS annex air is foul, workers say

April 03, 1995|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,Sun Staff Writer

Some workers say the Social Security complex in Woodlawn can be hazardous to their health.

Employees at the agency's annex building have long complained of an odor that sends them home nauseated, with burning eyes and a sense of malaise.

"To me, it was virtually unendurable. . . . I simply did not feel well at work," said Gerald Shea, 60, a retired branch chief who said he fought with administrators for better air quality for 10 years before leaving in 1991.

Many workers say it's no better now. They said they discovered what they called higher-than-usual incidences of cancer and respiratory problems at the annex, where 1,000 people work, and tuberculosis at the nearby Security West Complex, which houses 3,000 workers.

Social Security officials say there is nothing wrong with the air in the annex. "Altogether, there were 29 air quality tests in response to employee questions and concerns" since 1988, the agency said in a prepared statement.

Officials said they have tracked temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide, and checked for formaldehyde, ozone and asbestos. They say the air quality where employees work is sampled quarterly and meets government standards.

The U.S. Public Health Service also has conducted an epidemiological evaluation, studying the medical history of a sample of employees in the annex over time, according to Tom Margenau, spokesman for the Social Security Administration.

The results of the survey will be released to employees this week and later compared to national averages, he added.

The annex, a rambling, four-story brick structure, is not popular with many workers. "The employees are afraid of being in the building. The feeling is that this is a sick building," said an analyst on the third floor who spoke under condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

The second-floor air is so hot and irritating that workers suffer sinus headaches and eye problems and often feel the need to go out for fresh air, said Gretchen Graziano, an accounting technician who has worked there five years.

"I always had a sense I was covered with some sort of film" in the office, said Mr. Shea. He said his skin pores became so clogged that he regularly broke out in pimples. "I'm absolutely convinced that it was [from working there]."

Tests may be limited

Several workers interviewed said they remained at the annex because they doubted they could find other jobs at similar pay.

One doctor said the tests the agency uses may not catch all environmental contaminants.

"Typically, air sampling is not illuminating, and the absence of elevations of those particular compounds does not give us a definitive answer in either direction," said Dr. Rebecca Bascom, an environmental and occupational medicine specialist at the University of Maryland Medical Center. She said there is no foolproof way to check air quality.

Besides worrying about the air, many employees say they're worried about what they see as a high cancer rate in the annex.

They conducted an anonymous and partial survey of employees on several annex floors and distributed the results in a March 3 memo. They thought the results showed an unusually high cancer rate that might be even higher if they could survey all employees. Not everyone was surveyed because workers fear retribution if they're caught asking others about their health, a third-floor worker said.

Mr. Margenau denied that workers are punished for complaining and dismissed some of the complaints as normal griping. "It's sort of human nature for people to complain about their working environment," he said.

Dr. David Fouts, an on-site agency physician, said cancer in the annex is no more prevalent than in the general population.

A quarter-mile from the annex, in a building that is part of the Security West Complex, tuberculosis is the issue.

"There was a confirmed case of tuberculosis that is affecting an employee who worked in that building," Mr. Margenau said.

Problem is studied

The employee worked on the second floor of the Tower building with more than 300 others until December, when he became too ill to continue. The Baltimore County Health Department found out about the case in early March, according to Dr. Joan Colfer, director of its disease control bureau. She is studying the problem.

Tuberculosis is a degenerative lung disease transmitted through droplet nuclei -- tiny particles of spittle that stay airborne after a sneeze or cough. Untreated, it can be fatal.

"Airborne transmission of tuberculosis is something of concern," said Dr. Bascom of the University of Maryland.

The county administered tuberculin skin tests March 21 to 220 of the 314 people who work on that floor. The others were not tested because they get air from a separate ventilation system, Dr. Colfer said.

The Health Department found that at least 20 people tested positive for tuberculosis exposure, but that was not necessarily the result of working with an infected colleague, Mr. Margenau said.

Normally, 5 percent to 10 percent of the population will test positive to TB exposure, so the results were "within the upper limits of normal," said Dr. Colfer. Five percent of the people who have been exposed will eventually develop the disease. Those who are merely exposed to the disease are not contagious, she said.

Those who tested positive were sent to have chest X-rays to determine whether they actually have tuberculosis.

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