Baltimore County environmental inspectors have found moldy ceiling tiles, leaking windows, poorly maintained heating and cooling units and discolored drinking water inside a Towson office building where workers have complained of health problems for years.
A limited inspection of the Investment Building, a 13-story office tower where 700 state and county employees work, has revealed enough problems to trigger a more thorough review, county officials said yesterday.
Maryland Occupational Safety and Health, the state agency responsible for workplace safety, has been asked to conduct a rigorous inquiry, said George Perdikakis, director of the county Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management.
"What we did was not a scientific kind of study," Perdikakis said. "Although we did not see anything alarming, we think an industrial hygienist ought to come into the building and look at it."
Officials say many of the problems appear to have festered for years under haphazard property management, but say they will demand speedy corrections from out-of-town landlords who lease space to the county.
The findings validate mounting concerns of at least two dozen workers who suffer respiratory ailments, asthma and other conditions that they believe are linked to the building. Their symptoms clear, they say, when they spend time away from the office.
Complaints have mushroomed since October, when an unidentified building employee was found to have Legionnaire's disease and the bacterium that causes the disease was found in the ventilation system. The building was treated to eradicate the organism, even though a definitive link between the cooling systems and the employee's illness could not be established.
"As I said from the beginning, the first step was to determine if there was a problem with the building," said Mitchell Greenberg, a Baltimore attorney representing several employees seeking worker's compensation benefits. "It is encouraging that we now have something confirmed with the county. It is discouraging that the county still hasn't taken action to protect its workers."
Desiree Martin, a state adult foster care worker who says she has been debilitated by asthma attacks in recent months, said the county has not addressed key employee demands that it allow federal inspectors inside and move employees to other offices.
"Plain and simple, they need to get us out of there while they clean this place out," Martin said.
Baltimore County spends nearly $900,000 a year to rent 67,752 square feet of space in the building, which was built in 1966. The county health department and social services offices have their headquarters there. As a tenant, the county leaves maintenance to building owner A.M.G. Realty Partners of New York.
Robert J. Barrett, a top aide to County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, says he wonders whether the portion of the county's rent that is supposed to provide maintenance has been properly spent. "That building requires full-time property management. It just requires a lot of work and attention," Barrett said. "At some point, it stopped. And we're just not going to put up with it."
Workers have said they felt their complaints had been ignored for years, but county officials say they recognize that health problems could be real.
"We think the workers have legitimate concerns," said Dr. Michelle A. Leverett, head of the county health department. Moldy ceiling tiles were discovered above Leverett's 11th-floor doorway.
Lee Baylin, an attorney for the building's owners, said the conditions documented by county inspectors have been identified and are being alleviated through a $3 million renovation project.
After an earlier sampling found mold growing inside six of 10 ventilation system units, the building owners decided to replace all 280 internal units and the main roof-mounted system, Baylin said. A leaking glass wall on the 11th floor also will be replaced, beginning next week.
County officials aren't sure whether renovations will solve all of the problems, in part because they have not reviewed engineering drawings and action plans.
The officials said leaky windows and moldy ventilation units could cause widespread problems.
"There are obvious maintenance problems with the building as it exists now," said Bill Clark, an environmental supervisor preparing a final report on building conditions. "The maintenance issues there probably affect everybody at one time or another."