A sampling of air quality in Howard County's historic circuit courthouse showing elevated carbon dioxide and humidity levels in some areas is being used by a court official to seek a more comprehensive assessment of air flow in the building.
Margaret D. Rappaport, clerk of the county Circuit Court, said she requested the survey because of complaints of chronic headaches, eye irritation, respiratory problems and other illnesses from employees. Some workers say the symptoms clear up when they leave the building.
The sampling indicates that carbon dioxide concentrations in the clerk's office are above industry standards but below levels that government regulators consider a workplace hazard.
High humidity was detected in two courtrooms and a jury assembly room, a condition that can foster the growth of mold, according to the assessment.
Rappaport, in a letter to County Executive James N. Robey dated Oct. 3, asked that the county inspect the air systems in the building and conduct a thorough air-quality test in the building.
Such an evaluation would go a long way toward ensuring employee health and productivity, said Archie M. Barrett Jr., president of Glen Burnie-based Compliance Environmental International Inc., which performed the initial tests free of charge in August as a "favor" to Rappaport.
Complaints about air quality are fueling arguments from courthouse users who say the crowded 19th-century building has outlasted its usefulness as Howard's home for major civil cases and felony criminal prosecutions.
A recent assessment of the courthouse by an independent consulting firm concluded that as the county continues to add judges and functions over the next several years, it will need to build a new courthouse to meet space needs, possibly as early as 2015.
"Everything seems to be adding up that the inevitable solution is going to be a new courthouse," said Robert W. Guth, president of the Howard County Bar Association.
Robey has seen the letter from Rappaport and forwarded it to the Public Works Department to determine what needs to be done in the building, county spokeswoman Victoria Goodman said.
Rappaport said she brought in Barrett after hearing complaints from newer employees who said their health had declined since they began working in the courthouse. Employees said they would go home for the weekend, spend time outdoors and feel fine until Monday morning.
"I thought, 'I felt great all weekend. What's going on?' " said Sheri German, who works in the criminal department.
German, who said she has suffered from bronchitis and an upper respiratory infection since beginning work in the building two years ago, said she starts sneezing and her eyes begin to burn after she walks through the door.
Rappaport said she first called county officials and asked them to clean the vents. When cleaning didn't clear up the problems, she decided to have tests done. Since Barrett's tests on Aug. 23, Rappaport said, she has collected 42 surveys from employees in the clerk's office and from among judicial staff, many containing similar complaints - headaches, congestion and burning eyes.
Employees also report seeing mold growing in the building, Barrett said.
Leslie Cale, a court reporter for Judge James B. Dudley, said she had health problems until she moved to an office with a window. She keeps the window cracked, she said, to bring in fresh air.
Cale said she first raised concerns about air quality and other environmental health issues a decade ago.
Back then, air tests showed a need for improved cleaning and filtration, a "housekeeping issue," Public Works Director James M. Irvin said. Although he had not seen Rappaport's letter and Barrett's report as of late last week, he said the building is a source of "perennial complaints."
"The basic problem in the courthouse is there are too many people in it," he said.
Bill Grabau, a senior industrial hygienist with Maryland Occupational Safety and Health, said carbon dioxide readings at the levels found by Barrett usually indicate that the air systems are "not up to snuff" and that there's a need for more fresh air in the building.
Still, it can be difficult to solve everyone's air-related health problems, he said, because the illnesses reflect employees' individual sensitivities.
Symptoms such as headaches or drowsiness could indicate that the carbon dioxide is affecting a particular employee, he said.