Some Say New EEOC Headquarters Is Making Them Sick
By JOE DAVIDSON
Wednesday, April 1, 2009; A18
Is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's office hazardous to your health?
Apparently it is to some of the 500 employees and contractors who work at the agency's 131 M St. NE headquarters.
Since November, when they moved to the new facility, employees have complained of headaches, dizziness, coughing and respiratory problems.
Basically, the office has gas -- formaldehyde.
"The exact source has not been determined," said Michael McGill, a spokesman for the General Services Administration, which leases the building.
He added that in new or newly renovated space, "it is common for both the building materials used and the furnishings to emit, or 'off-gas,' various [chemicals] that were used in fabrication of these materials."
Formaldehyde dissipates over time, but the experts don't know how much time.
In addition to the health issues, the chemical has been harmful to the morale of employees, many of whom didn't want to move from their centrally located office at 18th and L streets NW to a still-developing neighborhood north of Union Station, according to leaders of the American Federation of Government Employees.
Several spots in the workplace were tested, and the highest concentration of formaldehyde, 0.046 parts per million, was found in Room 5SW26L, an interior office on the fifth floor, according to a report from Applied Environmental, the Herndon testing firm the GSA hired.
That's well below the Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard of 0.75 but above the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's limit of 0.016. It's the OSHA standard that governs. NIOSH only makes recommendations, but maybe its recommendations should rule. Results from a second set of tests are due this week.
Formaldehyde is an industrial chemical used in building materials and household products. "Low levels of formaldehyde can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin. It is possible that people with asthma may be more sensitive to the effects of inhaled formaldehyde," reports the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Although the registry says the gas has a strong smell, employees have not reported any unusual odors. And most staff members apparently have not reported any problems, though neither management nor union officials could provide an exact number.
But the less serious ailments the registry identified are prompting persistent complaints from some workers. Renee Mallett is one. She works on the fourth floor and blames the building for a series of health problems.
"When we first moved to the building, I started getting throat problems," she said. "My throat would be scratchy and hoarse."
Then things apparently got worse.
Three weeks ago, she was talking with a co-worker when suddenly, she said, "I could not stand on my own. Every time I tried to stand up, I got dizzy. I thought I was going to pass out." She fell to her knees before someone found an office chair with wheels and rolled her to the EEOC health center.
She was taken by ambulance to a hospital emergency room. "I told them it was my job that was actually making me sick," she recalled.
Michael Nathan, her Alexandria ear, nose and throat doctor, said Mallett's symptoms were consistent with the kind of ailments formaldehyde can cause. "We see that in sick buildings," he said, without directly placing the EEOC building in that category.
Nathan recommended that Mallett work at home. "That's a reasonable option if telecommuting is available," he said.
Stuart J. Ishimaru, the acting EEOC chairman, says that he's a fan of telework but that large numbers of employees have not requested to do that. During an interview, he said the workers' reports of maladies are "very troubling to us," and he promised to aggressively search for a solution.
The agency spent $20,000 over two March weekends in "overtime utilities" charges to ventilate the buildings, a spokesman said.
The agency is "exploring additional air quality testing for substances other than formaldehyde," Ishimaru said in a memo last Wednesday to his staff. "Like you, I work in this building and, like you, I want assurances that we are working in a safe environment."
Some employees say the assurances are no better than a bad debt, and they have expressed their dissatisfaction on an EEOC internal blog.
"Just keep your coughing to a dull roar, folks," wrote one worker, "so you don't disturb your neighbors who have the blinding headaches."
More information about formaldehyde can be found here: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts111.html.
Diary associate Eric Yoder contributed to this report. Contact Joe Davidson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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