Balto. Co., state workers protest their `sick building'

50 at rally say it has contaminants, poor ventilation

May 23, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Hoping to focus attention on their work conditions, 50 state and Baltimore County employees gathered for a quiet noontime rally yesterday outside a Towson office building that they say has poor ventilation, mold and other contaminants.

"All we want is the building cleaned up," said Jane Koel, a county social worker who thinks the Investment Building has caused her breathing problems and infections, and is the source of the Legionella pneumophila bacteria present in her system. "You walk in there and you can smell the stagnation in the air. There is no circulation."

About 700 county and state employees work out of rented office space inside the 13-story building, near Towson Town Center. Several are represented by a lawyer, who is handling worker's compensation claims and other matters for employees who think they are suffering from building-related illnesses.

Last fall, county health officials announced that a worker in the building had contracted Legionnaires' disease, a bacterial infection that can lead to pneumonia and death. The bacteria that cause the disease were found inside the building's cooling and water systems, prompting a $100,000 cleanup.

Since then, say several workers, including Koel, tests have shown that Legionella bacteria are present in their systems, although they have not been diagnosed with the disease. An expert not involved in the dispute said the bacteria are fairly common.

Lee Baylin, an attorney representing A.M.G. Realty Partners of New York, which owns the building, said the building's heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems will receive a $2.5 million upgrade within the next year that could alleviate many complaints.

He said he has not agreed to a key request of the workers, that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health conduct an evaluation inside the building.

"I'm not sure they have the authority to come in," Baylin said last week. "I'm not sure what they are looking for."

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