County officials began circulating an "environmental up date" to employees in the Howard Circuit Courthouse yesterday in the midst of a top-to-bottom review of the historic building by state occupational health inspectors.
Maryland Occupational Safety and Health has been studying possible environmental problems in the cramped 19th-century building for two months.
Prompted by questions raised by MOSH, and employee health complaints, Howard County recently tested the building for asbestos, lead paint and other contaminants. The tests showed that contaminants such as asbestos, lead and mercury - and elevated levels of radon - were found in the building.
But yesterday's advisory notes that contaminants were found in limited quantities or in little-used spaces and had not been dispersed into the air. Results from more tests are pending.
Lead abatement has been done, the advisory notes, and an area of asbestos residue was contained.
Boxes stored in the unfinished basement area where the elevated radon levels were found will be moved, according to the newsletter. The area also will be ventilated during a planned renovation project.
"This information is so preliminary that the County is hesitant to share it." the update notes. "Despite our concerns about sharing these readings with you before we know exactly what we will do next, we have committed to providing you whatever information we have."
"There have been a lot of requests for information, a lot of rumor and innuendo." said James M. Irvin, the county's public works director. "We wanted to get out what we know right away."
Updates will be circulated when the county receives new information about tests and studies, Irvin said.
It was unclear yesterday when MOSH would complete what is expected to be a series of reports - one for each area of the building - on its findings.
Last week, a doctor visited the building to talk with employees about health problems, courthouse workers said.
Karen Napolitano , a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which includes MOSH, confirmed yesterday that the program is conducting a "consultation' at the request of an employer but said she could not provide further information.
Clerk of the Circuit Court Margaret D. Rappaport, whose inquiry prompted the state agency to go to the building in early May, said she has been told to expect a copy of the study of her offices within days.
Rappaport said she called MOSH in April because of health complaints from her employees.
"All I want is a safe, healthy place for my people to work." she said yesterday. "I'm not asking for the Taj Mahal."
Last year, a preliminary air quality survey requested by Rappaport was followed by a full-blown complete air quality study by the county.
The study's authors found evidence of moisture, fungi and bacteria, and suggested better maintenance as a solution.
That study and problems found during an April fire inspection sparked a recent intensive cleaning of the building, Irvin said.
Building employees say the cleaning turned up clogged and moldy vents and filters.
Mary Davis, the court reporter for Howard Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, said doctors blame the residue from the cleaning for respiratory problems that landed her in North Arundel Hospital in mid-May with a tongue so badly swollen that doctors considered putting her on a ventilator.
Irvin said yesterday that while "a lot more maintenance and cleaning" will help, the building is too crowded.
A renovation project, which will move the state's attorney's offices out of the building and refit that space, is being planned.