Courthouse called free of `serious' health risk

Survey indicates Mitchell building might cause minor problems

February 01, 2002|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

The Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse poses "no serious health risks" to employees, but the building's conditions are the likely cause of some health problems, the city's health commissioner said yesterday.

"There was a very strong fear that there might have been a serious health risk in the building because of the anecdotal reports of a few cases of cancer and other diseases," Dr. Peter L. Beilenson said. "The good news from the study is that the building poses no serious health risks.

"What does appear to be the case, at least in Mitchell, is there are more upper respiratory and/or allergic conditions than would be expected, and that probably is related to the general cleanliness of the building."

Beilenson's spoke after the release of findings of a survey of the courthouse staff conducted by Dr. Clifford S. Mitchell, assistant professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Its findings will be discussed by Mitchell and Beilenson Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. at the War Memorial Building, and the commissioner will make recommendations on how to correct courthouse conditions.

The survey recommends a comprehensive overhaul of the building, including its ventilation system. It also recommends a regular walk-through inspection of the building by an air-quality specialist and that someone be responsible for hearing complaints and ensuring that problems are solved.

Those recommendations were made by employees, not by Mitchell or health officials.

Many courthouse employees - surveys were distributed to 530 people - have said conditions in the building, which include 90-degree temperatures in some rooms, dirt and vermin, affect their health. In July, about 50 employees rallied outside the courthouse to protest conditions there and threatened to sue if they didn't get relief.

Last year, two Mitchell Courthouse employees contracted Legionnaire's disease, a respiratory illness that is spread by contaminated air conditioning and other air-circulation systems. The illnesses were not tied to the building.

Plan to be implemented

Circuit Judge Ellen M. Heller, the court's top administrative judge, said that whatever Beilenson recommends next week, an indoor air-quality management plan will be implemented immediately.

"We are setting up a system by which people can easily hand in complaints about the building or symptoms they are experiencing, and these will be passed on to the occupational health and safety people, who will review them and hopefully advise us when action is appropriate," Heller said.

In response to the survey, she said she is especially concerned about "the finding in the report that the prevalence of upper respiratory diagnoses ... was significantly higher than before [employees] had worked in the building or what might be expected in the general population."

"The report itself is inconclusive as to whether the significantly higher diagnoses of upper respiratory illnesses is due to the fact that people are working in that building or whether it was skewed by the greater likelihood that people with upper respiratory illnesses would return the surveys," she said.

"Nevertheless, the bottom line is that the frequency is significantly higher than the general population."

Survey results questioned

The anonymous, confidential survey had a low participation rate, with 196 surveys returned. Of the respondents, 178 work in the Mitchell Courthouse. Employees in the East Courthouse, where Heller and Clerk of Court Frank M. Conaway work, have not complained as much about conditions.

Conaway said he wasn't completely satisfied with the survey because "there weren't a sufficient number of respondents, in my opinion, to come to any kind of meaningful conclusion."

Conaway also said he wants to hear recommendations from Beilenson and Mitchell, not from employees.

"What are the recommendations of the professionals that need to be done to allay the fears of the respondents?" he asked. "You're taking a survey to say what the employees are saying needs to be done. From a medical point of view, that doesn't help me very much, and it doesn't help my people."

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