Suspicion of `sick' building lingers

Workers say illnesses arise from conditions at Balto. Co. offices

May 28, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

It was 4 a.m., and Marina Eddy couldn't breathe.

The 40-year-old computer systems manager had spent a few hours the day before at her office -- a place she had been trying to avoid.

Whenever Eddy stepped inside the Investment Building in Towson, she emerged with red eyes and squeezed lungs. Something inside the building was triggering asthma attacks and allergic reactions, she and her doctor concluded. They didn't know what it was, but it was best to stay away, they figured.

Her bosses disagreed. Eddy, who works for the Baltimore County Department of Social Services, had asked to telecommute, but her request was denied. Nothing was wrong with the building, managers said. To keep her job, she must work where she was assigned.

"This is the only choice we have," she said. "Quit or get sick."

Eddy is one of at least two dozen state and county employees who say the Investment Building is making them ill.

Their problems vary, but afflicted workers say they have one thing in common: symptoms that clear up when they spend time away from their jobs.

And they think they know why.

Water leaks from windows in the building's upper floors. It collects in pans hidden in the ceiling, providing a breeding ground for bacteria. The leaking water also nourishes mold that stains carpet and ceiling tiles.

Stagnant air and poor circulation hamper breathing in the garage, on the plaza level and in other areas. And the problems, workers say, have gone untreated for years.

In 1988, employee health concerns prompted the county to conduct a survey. Of 250 respondents, 97 said they experienced sinus pain, headaches and eye and throat problems that they blamed on indoor air. It is unclear from records whether any action was taken.

Last fall, an unidentified Investment Building employee contracted Legionnaires' disease. The building was tested, and the bacteria that cause the disease, Legionella, were found in the cooling and drinking water systems, necessitating a $100,000 cleanup.

Soon after, another worker noticed a strange odor coming from a vent near her desk. She tore out a piece of insulation and sent it to a lab. The result: growing inside the building's walls was cladysporum, a mold that can cause respiratory disorders, including asthma and emphysema.

Mold. Bacteria. Stale air. To Baltimore County officials, they don't make the Investment Building a "sick building" that warrants immediate treatment.

As they pay $890,938 in rent each year to building owners A.M.G. Realty Partners, government officials say it is the responsibility of the landlord to make sure that conditions inside are clean and healthful.

The building's owners say they won't allow independent testers inside. They say they did everything they could after the Legionella discovery and are planning a $2.5 million ventilation system overhaul, so no further study is needed.

The county's air-quality expert said no complaints about the building had been passed along to his office, and county health officials, whose offices are on the 11th floor, say they believe conditions are safe.

"There is no definitive way to say that these problems are caused by air quality," said Karen Stott, a health department spokeswoman.

The reaction has angered county employees.

`They don't care'

"It's liability. They are looking out for their own butts," said Cheryl Duffy, 38, a social worker who has tested positive for Legionella but has not contracted Legionnaires' disease. "As long as they can hire people to work in that building, they don't care."

Built in 1966, the Investment Building sits several long blocks from the seat of government in Towson, near Towson Town Center mall.

The largest of several satellite locations where the county rents office space, it houses the Assessment Appeals Board, the Office of Community Conservation, the Office of Employment and Training, the Health Department and the Department of Social Services. It also houses the office of the state prosecutor.

County lawmakers who have supported constructing a centralized government center in Towson say the troubles at the Investment Building bolster their arguments that the county needs to create more space.

"If it's true, it's another reason to get rid of that lease and build another county building," said Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican.

Adds Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat: "A million dollars a year could be better spent on a building that serves the county's needs better, doesn't have health concerns, is closer to the county courthouse and can provide additional parking."

Eddy said she thought she was alone in her troubles, then began hearing of employees in other agencies with the same experiences. Many are part-time workers with no union representation who say they are afraid to speak for fear of ridicule or loss of their jobs. But they are starting to band together.

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