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'Sick building' defies diagnosis, but diseases blamed on workplace persist

James Bruggy points in dismay at a seating chart of th ground floor of the Meadows East Building. Each of the 30 names written on the diagram represents a co-worker who has had a serious medical problem -- fungus balls and growths inside their heads, respiratory and eye infections, skin rashes and swelling, cancer.

The name of Maura McHale Allison, who worked there less than three years, is the most recent addition. She transferred to another building on the advice of her physician three weeks ago after developing severe headaches and allergic reactions.

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"This has been going on for five years, and it hasn't stopped," said Mr. Bruggy, a program analyst with the U.S. Health Care Financing Administration in Woodlawn who has charted the puzzling medical casesthat many of the victims blame on the building where they worked.

Despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in environmental engineering improvements and a half-dozen health studies that have failed to detect a causal link, the "sick building syndrome" label still sticks to the four-story, glass-faced structure on Security Boulevard.

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Last month, another health investigator finished a study that again found no specific cause for the serious medical problems reported among two dozen HCFA workers there.

Industrial hygienist Oneil M. Banks of Bel Air said there were indications of previous fungus contamination that could have caused some of the illnesses.

But he said that there was no chemical or biological contaminant present when he tested over the past five months and that no further testing for fungus was necessary.

"I don't know if they'll ever find the cause, but something is there," said Mr. Bruggy, who is union shop steward for Local 1923, American Federation of Government Employees, in the Meadows East Building.

John Tamberrino, a methods analyst who was the first to get a medical transfer to another HCFA building back in 1986, said, "I'm lucky I got the hell out of there when I did before something more serious happened." He developed eye inflammation, sinus problems and nosebleeds that his doctor attributed to hypersensitive allergies that seemed to be triggered by his working in the building.

"I'm certainly better off now with my health," he said, although the allergic reactions that first appeared when he worked in Meadows East occasionally recur.

HCFA has transferred at least 27 employees with documented medical complaints to other buildings since 1986, the union says. Others have retired after medical treatment or have found jobs in other HCFA buildings. Nearly 50 employees have reported significant health problems that may be linked to their workplace.

Two years ago, HCFA agreed to move all 700 employees out of the leased Meadows East Building, not because of proven health hazards but because of widespread employee worries.

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But the General Services Administration, the government's leasing agency, could not find an alternative location in its budget. And the Meadows East owners hired influential Washington lobbyist-lawyer Paul Laxalt to dissuade the GSA from excluding their building from consideration.

So GSA reversed itself and declared "an insufficient pattern" of worker sickness to warrant disqualification.

The expiring lease was renegotiated to extend into 1995, with an option to move out earlier if HCFA can complete its planned consolidated facilities before then.

As part of the lease agreement, the ventilation-system motor was beefed up, the intake air chute was raised 20 feet from its basement-level location, the air vents were scrubbed, and a new program for monitoring air quality was instituted.

The Banks investigation was made after those improvements. Previous studies of the building's air quality, including one by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, found no specific source for the severe medical complaints, although they had faulted an antiquated, inadequate air intake system for general employee discomfort.

Looking at nine work areas on the ground floor, where the overwhelming majority of medical complaints originated, Dr. Banks found no link between the reported illnesses and gases, fungus or other conditions present in the building.

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Fungal growths and ear-eye-nose and sinus infections could be caused by airborne mold or bacteria, Dr. Banks noted, but those microorganisms were not found at the work sites of employees reporting those illnesses.

One fungus was found on the leaf of a potted plant brought in by an employee.

Dr. Banks also found the common fungus, Aspergillus niger, in the air near a cubicle where two employees who died of cancers and a third who developed a bad case of pleurisy had worked. But those medical conditions would not result from the fungus, Dr. Banks said.

"This indicates a possible previous building contamination with Aspergillus niger which may have caused fungal balls, sinus and ear infections and nose fungus [in other employees]. Such a building contamination . . . was not found at the time of our inspection," he said.

Dr. Banks was able to grow common fungi in several locations, but said they did not represent an apparent human health hazard.

After the Banks report was delivered a week ago, the owner of the Meadows East Building wrote to the labor union threatening legal action if its members continued "to make false and inaccurate statements which impugn the reputation and diminish the value" of the building and to interfere with the government lease.

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AFGE officials expressed surprise at the letter, although it came the week that the Meadows East Building was mentioned in congressional hearings on indoor air pollution.

Mark A. Llewellyn, representing Meadows Park Limited Partnership, noted the numerous studies of alleged environmental health hazards in the building. "Time and time again the results of the analysis have disproved AFGE's allegations," he wrote.

He also noted the "significant improvements" and "upgraded maintenance procedures" under the lease agreement.

That includes assigning an engineer from Johnson Controls Inc. full time to manually adjust the old ventilation system to meet changing conditions through the workday -- monitoring and balancing the air flow, temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide XTC in various parts of the building. Biospherics Inc. of Bethesda was hired to test air quality monthly.

Employees at Meadows East say there are still "dead zones" where air does not circulate and where carbon dioxide levels sometimes rise enough to cause torpor or stuffiness.

"Dust is still coming out of the vents; you can see it falling on the desks, and on the ceiling where it's coming out," said one employee who declined to be identified.

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One problem is that Meadows East is a sealed building more than 20 years old, with an outdated ventilation system that was not designed to serve 700 people working within a maze of partitions that impede air flow.

The building was used primarily for records storage by an insurance company until the government began leasing it.

HCFA moved there in 1982, and serious medical complaints began to surface after 1985 when the agency moved in 200 more employees.

New carpeting and textile-covered partitions installed then were once suspected as the source of some complaints but that was never proved.

The number of Meadows East employees reporting alleged occupational illnesses is not unusually high, and no causal relationship has ever been established, according to Lee Mosedale, director of the agency's budget and administration office. Individuals with medical documents may be relocated from Meadows East if their bureaus have openings elsewhere, he said.

Presumably, the afflicted are the people most sensitive or susceptible to whatever may be in that office environment, said Phillip V. Otto, the AFGE Local 1923 vice president.

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"When they move to another building, their conditions have usually improved. It's as simple as that," he said.

Their physicians believed that the workplace conditions at least contributed to their illnesses, he said, and six of them were awarded worker compensation benefits.

"There really isn't any villain" in this situation, Mr. Otto said.

One source of union discontent is the government's failure to follow through with a pledge to move out of Meadows East in 1989.

Moving to a new site would cost the government about $5 million for relocation on top of increased rental payments, Mr. Laxalt, the lobbyist for the owners, said. The GSA also rejected his offer on behalf of the owners to move 200 HCFA workers to a nearby building owned by the Meadows Park group as too costly and disruptive.

No other bidder could come close to the Meadows East lease bid of $1.2 million a year, because the enormous relocation costs would have to be added on.

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The Meadows Park partnership, which leases five of HCFA's nine Woodlawn buildings, has been understandably sensitive about allegations that its building makes workers sick.

The owners hope to bid on the new HCFA consolidated site, a $100 million project, with a clean reputation.

And the partnership, which bought the building in 1987, will also have to attract a new tenant to Meadows East in four years.


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