Tuesday, June 20, 2000

Workplaces can make you sick


Awareness growing that environmental hazards affect employees' health

By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Stan Miller is chronically ill with respiratory disease.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        For three months, Stan Miller and his crew had been tearing out and replacing drywall in the hotel where Mr. Miller was maintenance chief.

        The hotel, the Best Western Springdale Hotel and Conference Centre, was in the middle of a massive renovation to clean up mold that had infested the building. Mr. Miller didn't give much thought to working every day without protective gear until he saw the environmental cleanup contractors head into the affected areas.

        “These guys went in in what looked like spacesuits,” says Mr. Miller, 44, of Lockland. “They had the respirators and they were covered head to toe. It just scared the living daylights out of me. Here I've been doing this for three months with nothing, and these guys won't even let it get on their skin.”

        Mr. Miller, former hotel manager Jim Crane and several other current and former employees of the hotel are suing the former owners, Laks Enterprises in Cleveland. They claim exposure to the mold caused them irreversible health damage.

        Mr. Miller, Mr. Crane and the others are among a growing group of workers who are learning that going to the job every day can be hazardous to your health.

        The Greater Cincinnati Occupational Health Center trains workers in how to improve on-the-job safety and sponsors a number of community outreach programs on workplace safety, said director LaVerne Mayfield.

        Tonight the center, in cooperation with the University of Cincinnati Center for Environmental Genetics community outreach program, will hold a forum on work and genetic testing. The program, at the occupational health center at 7030 Reading Road, will focus on why employees exposed to the same environmental toxins react differently to those toxins and how industry could use genetic test results for discriminatory health practices, says Dr. Susan Vandale, coordinator of community outreach and education at the Center for Environmental Genetics.

        Mr. Miller worked at the hotel from March to November 1999. When he began having difficulty breathing and suffered chest pains, a doctor ordered a pulmonary function test. The test, done in February, showed he had lost roughly 30 percent of his lung capacity in the last year.

        Mr. Crane, 49, of Colerain Township, worked at the hotel for more than 13 years, leaving because of his health problems in October 1999. Since he began getting sick in 1998, tests have shown he has lost about 50 percent of his lung capacity. He suffers from pulmonary fibrosis, and takes 17 medications daily to try to control the damage to his lungs.

        Mr. Crane and Mr. Miller say they inhaled toxic amounts of mold, which scarred their lungs. Mr. Crane's exposure was so great that doctors have been able to culture mold from fluids in his sinuses.

        Robert N. Trainor, the Covington attorney representing Mr. Crane, Mr. Miller and the others in the suit against the hotel, called the mold infestation “insidious stuff.”

        The effects of the mold were so pervasive that when Mr. Trainor and an assistant were reviewing hotel maintenance records that had been stored in the hotel, he had a reaction. “And that was after they'd been out of the building for several months,” he said.

        For years, workplace hazards were associated with manufacturing and manual labor. But more and more so-called white-collar workers across the United States are complaining their offices are making them ill, citing everything from sick building syndrome to hypersensitivity to substances in the work environment.

        “There are a couple of issues” to consider when discussing workplace ailments, says Dr. Mary Brophy, an environmental specialist at the State University of New York School of Public Health in Binghamton and adjunct professor of chemistry at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. “One is the issue of health effects and the other is the environment issue.”

        A problem gaining more recognition is workers' developing sensitivities or allergies to substances in the workplace, Dr. Brophy says. One example is latex, used in surgical gloves and other protective gear, with more workers exposed to it in health-care and high-tech industries.

        And sick building syndrome is coming under more scrutiny as workers complain their workplace is literally making them ill. No single illness is linked to SBS, but a wide range of symptoms, including headaches; eye, nose and throat irritation;, dry cough; dry or itchy skin and fatigue, all seem to be linked to spending time in a suspect building.

        Possible culprits behind sick building syndrome include:

        • Chemical contaminants from outdoor sources, such as motor vehicle exhaust entering the building through poorly located air intake vents.

        • Chemical contaminants from indoor sources, including tobacco smoke or adhesives, upholstery, carpeting, copy machines and other items that may emit toxic compounds such as formaldehyde or benzene, both known carcinogens.

        • Biological contaminants, including pollen, mold, bacteria and viruses. The critters can breed in stagnant water that has collected in humidifiers, drain pans or duct work and trigger allergic reactions and outbreaks of illnesses such as Legionnaire's disease.

        • Inadequate ventilation. The energy crisis of the 1970s prompted construction of air-tight, energy-efficient buildings that don't always allow enough fresh air in. Low oxygen levels cause headache, fatigue and a host of other symptoms that can result in cranky and unproductive employees.

        In May 1991, employees at the Alms & Doepke Building, downtown, which housed several Hamilton County offices, were evacuated because of fumes that pervaded the building. Several workers were hospitalized, and a group of employees later sued the owners of the building and won.

        The evacuations followed an inspection of the building in November 1990 that found bacterial contamination in the building's ventilation system. Employees in the probation and juvenile justice offices had complained of chest pains, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness and headaches.

        Mr. Crane, the former hotel manager, says workers and guests at the hotel complained about feeling ill and about the odor of the mold.

        Laks Enterprises, which lost the hotel to foreclosure last year, would not comment on the lawsuit. Current management says the hotel is now safe.

        For Mr. Crane and Mr. Miller, the question looms of whether they'll ever be able to return to work.

        Mr. Miller, who has worked in building maintenance all his life, runs out of breath climbing the stairs to his attic. Mr. Crane tries to keep a positive outlook, but he says his illness keeps him in the house and out of breath on hot, humid days. He was hospitalized three times last year because of breathing problems and chest pains.

        “It always makes you wonder what's around the corner, what's coming next,” he says

       



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