Glen Arm repair shop under fire

Balto. County workers wonder whether ills are related to building

`Problems down the road?'

Maintenance facility was purchased from Northrup Grumman

May 30, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Federal and state health officials are investigating working conditions at a massive Baltimore County maintenance facility in Glen Arm where at least a dozen workers have developed rashes and other ailments since last fall.

Inspectors collected air and dust samples this month from the Glen Arm Maintenance Facility after union officials sought a review by both the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH).

"My concern is what's going on up there and what health hazards my people face up there," said James F. Clark, president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees.

Clark said that the 200 workers at the facility are concerned about the long-term health effects from working at the garage, purchased for $1.9 million from aerospace manufacturer Northrup Grumman in 1996 and used to repair firetrucks, traffic signals, snowplows and other heavy equipment.

"What I'm wondering is: Am I going to have other problems down the road?" said Francis Treadwell, 38, an electronics technician who developed rashes twice last fall.

Although traces of toxic substances such as beryllium, chromium, magnesium, nickel and aluminum have been found at the site, county officials say their consultants and MOSH inspectors have not found evidence linking the illnesses with the building.

Joseph Seidel, a spokesman for MOSH, said he could not discuss specifics of the agency's findings because inspectors are reviewing data from air and dust samples collected at the facility May 5.

MOSH inspectors are scheduled to meet with county officials Wednesday.

A spokesman for NIOSH said that a staff member will interview Clark and other union and county officials and probably will review MOSH's report before deciding whether to interview workers and conduct environmental tests.

The agency, part of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, does not issue fines or citations but files advisory reports with state and federal regulatory agencies, said David Sundin, a branch manager at NIOSH.

Treadwell, who normally is assigned to a Hunt Valley maintenance shop, said he developed rashes from his chest to his knees twice last fall after he climbed ladders and lifted ceiling tiles in Glen Arm to install computer cables near the signal repair shop.

He said he saw physicians twice and was told he had developed the rash from something he touched. Doctors prescribed a skin medication, and the rash cleared up in three or four days.

But Treadwell said he has since been told he will no longer be given assignments to work in Glen Arm.

Rashes and cough

"What bothers you is just not knowing what's causing it all," said a technician in his 40s assigned to the signal repair shop, who requested anonymity.

He said he has developed rashes on his hands nine times since last fall and recently developed a dry cough.

Physicians have prescribed cortisone for the rashes, which disappear after a few days. But doctors have been unable to tell him what is causing the cough, he said.

"I don't know what it would be," he said. "I've never had an allergy in my life."

Environmental consultants

County officials said they have hired two environmental consultants to try to determine the cause of the problems.

"The county is taking this very seriously," said Elise Armacost, a spokeswoman for County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "But we're relying on outside experts to tell us what we should do, and so far they haven't been able to find anything."

Dr. Shirin DeSilva, an industrial hygienist hired by the county to investigate conditions at the plant, told county officials three weeks ago that the rashes could be caused by tiny bits of fiberglass that began falling from ceiling tiles during renovation work last fall and early this year.

"I think it's a safe workplace," said DeSilva, an Army physician who was paid $600 by the county.

The building, constructed in 1956, was used by Grumman to cut and assemble aircraft parts and pieces of the space shuttle out of huge metal sheets and slabs, according to a Northrup spokesman.

Edward S. Tochterman Jr., the county building services bureau chief who oversees the facility, said that before the county acquired the building from Grumman in 1996, tests had been conducted to make sure the plant was free of asbestos and other hazardous materials.

Air and dust samples

Tochterman said that after the recent complaints, the county paid Jenkins Environmental Inc. $2,600 to take air and dust samples in February and March at the 180,000-square-foot facility.

James Edmunds, a senior industrial hygienist for Jenkins Environmental, said he explored whether the workers' health problems were related to the building's former use as an aircraft plant.

His tests on samples of air and dust turned up minute levels of several toxic substances, including beryllium and the other metals, but not at levels that would pose serious health threats, he said.

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