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Troubled building in Towson is closed

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A troubled Towson office tower has been closed for business while inspectors check to see if asbestos fibers dislodged during a renovation were sucked into the building's ventilation system.

Baltimore County officials announced late last night that the Investment Building, the workplace of 700 county and state employees, will be closed today because of what they described as unpermitted asbestos work.

The announcement came a few hours after county officials disclosed that they have decided to withhold rent payments at the building because of compounding maintenance problems.

Last night, County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, county attorney Virginia Barnhart and several other officials were at the building determining the extent of damage done by crews removing asbestos tiles in the building's penthouse without taking proper precautions, county spokeswoman Elise Armacost said.

The work was done next to the building's air-handling units, raising concerns that asbestos fibers were drawn into the ventilation system.

"We're closing tomorrow" as a precaution, Armacost said.

It is the latest in a series of problems at the building where several dozen state and county employees have complained of breathing problems and illnesses.

Even before last night's closing, Robert J. Barrett, a top assistant to Ruppersburger, indicated that the county is examining the idea of permanently relocating its employees. "It's an option we are strongly looking at," he said.

The county pays more than $1 million a year in rent for Investment Building space. The monthly payments of roughly $90,000 to owner A.M.G. Realty Partners of New York will now be placed in escrow, Barrett said.

The attorney for A.M.G. Realty could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Many of the employees working in the building near the Towson roundabout have complained for years about poor ventilation and possible mold and fungal contamination they say has caused ailments ranging from headaches to lung disease.

In recent months, county officials have asked state and federal occupational safety regulators to examine building conditions and have hired a doctor to conduct a survey of employee health complaints.

The inspectors said that the Investment Building did not meet criteria for sick-building syndrome, but that employee concerns should not be ignored.

While not conceding that the building has caused health problems, Barrett said too much staff time has been spent moving offices and monitoring repair projects.

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