All buildings are prone to wear and tear. Over the years, the components of any building will begin to age and deteriorate without proper upkeep. Recently, we’ve begun to see a number of instances where California government facilities have experienced issues that often arise with older buildings that aren’t maintained, such as severe toxic mold infestations and harmful levels of hazardous chemicals. In many instances governmental employees have had to sufferer the consequences of exposure. In the past 15-20 years there have been cases of toxic mold in governmental buildings throughout the state. For government employees, the benefits and stability of such a career can be quite desirable. However, when a government employee is asked to choose between their career and the health of themselves and their fellow employees, it is their obligation to stop the injustice. Every employee has the right to a healthy work environment, and if contaminants are present it is the duty of the employer to inspect, test, and remove all hazardous materials in order to maintain that safe environment.
In the past there have been several instances of government buildings being diagnosed with sick building syndrome (SBS), which can cause intense health issues for its occupants. The term sick building syndrome actually originated as a result of the health problems several employees suffered after working at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters during the 1980s. Several employees complained of allergy-like reactions, flu-like symptoms, and a plethora of other such ailments. The structure was designated as a “sick building.” This diagnosis was the result of a severe mold infestation and chemical-ridden building materials coupled with poor natural ventilation. The mechanical ventilation of the building was merely taking the existing contaminants and redistributed them throughout the building, exacerbating the problem. These issues continued for several years, lasting well into the 90’s. The result was thousands of dollars of damage and several sick employees who will suffer from medical ailments for the rest of their lives.
The existence of SBS, for most structures, stems from decisions to apply energy saving techniques to the construction of new buildings in the 1970’s. Although utility cost went down, the indoor air quality (IAQ) continued to get worse, causing adverse health effects in those that were exposed. This can be especially bad for people in the workforce, since many spend approximately 8 hours a day and 40 hours a week inside their office. If hazardous materials are present in the structure, an individual can be exposed continuously – from weeks to several years – and never understand why they feel so unwell. In the state of California (and via Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations), there exist acceptable levels for specific contaminants in a government building, including mold, asbestos, lead, Carbon Monoxide, and several others.
In May of 1999, extensive mold growth was found in the Tulare County courthouse. Water damage had occurred on the property nearly two decades prior, and resulted in the mold growth that later caused structural damage and health defects for the courthouse employees. Several past and present employees indicated that they were suffering from various ailments including headaches, skin sensitivity, rashes, allergic response, nasal congestion, memory loss, and some even developed serious lung disease. Had the proper mold testing, mold inspection, and remediation been done, the building would not have needed such extensive repair. The president of the Tulare County Deputy Attorneys Association even stated that all the lawsuits as a result of the mold growth could have been avoided had the officials closed the courthouse and properly tested and remediated the mold when it was first reported. Nearly 150 workers had filed claims against the county and nearly 60 employees were on medical leave around this time. The result was the closure of several departments and significantly low productivity for the entire courthouse. Ultimately, proper testing and removal of mold will allow for lowered maintenance cost, litigation, and medical expense.
In the California state capital of Sacramento, there have been several cases of toxic mold growth occurring in governmental buildings. One such circumstance involved the Board of Equalization, which employs approximately 300 individuals. Since 2007 the sky-rise building has suffered multiple leaks and moisture intrusions, resulting in an extreme mold infestation. Numerous floors have been shut off indefinitely to employees due the extensive damage to the building. Several employees have endured the symptoms of mold exposure, including extreme fatigue, nasal congestion, irritated eyes, and other afflictions. More and more employees began to complain about their many ailments. Eventually they were all placed on administrative leave so that the building could be properly decontaminated. Several individuals have even filed lawsuits against the BOE, stating that the extensive mold growth had caused them to be sick. They say the Board has only recently begun to fix the problem, and much of the damage was done years prior. As a government-funded facility in the state of California, it is the employer’s job to provide a healthy environment for their employees to work in. Having the proper inspection and air quality testing done will ensure that an environment is safe for all employees. As with the situation above, had an inspection of the property been done prior to purchase, the water damage would have been detected and fixed before the problem became too extensive.
In San Francisco, officials have realized just how important air quality is to a persons’ overall health. The Resource-Efficient City Building Ordinances adopted by San Francisco in 1999 describes the requirement that buildings owned or leased by the city have a healthy indoor air quality and limit the use of hazardous construction materials. The EPA has also established the Clean Air Act that sets a standard for the permissible levels of lead, ozone, particulate matter (soot, dust, mold etc.), nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide in the air. The American Lung Associate indicates that individuals spend approximately 90% of their time indoors, and the air quality indoors can be far worse than outside air quality. In this instance it is imperative that the proper testing and removal of contaminants from an indoor environment be done immediately after detection to ensure the health of the building’s occupants. The EPA is also required to do periodic reviews of such government-owned buildings to determine whether these standards are being met.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has also established several regulations that limit an employee’s exposure to hazardous biological and chemical contaminants. Lead exposure levels, for example, shall never go above 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an eight hour period of time. If an employee works more than eight hours in a day, the level of permissible lead exposure is determined by using the formula: maximum permissible limit (in ug/m(3))=400 divided by the number of hours worked in the day. After lead testing has commenced, the employer has 15 days to inform his employees of the test results. If an employee is exposed to lead particles that go above the acceptable levels of exposure for more than 30 days a year, the employer is required to reduce the lead to an acceptable level. Of all contaminant overexposures that appear in industry, lead is the most common, and results in a higher frequency of workplace illness than any other kind of contaminant. All government-owned buildings constructed during the 1950s are likely to contain lead-based paint. As the paint begins to chip, particles enter the air and can be inhaled by the building’s occupants. It is important to note that if a building containing lead paint or other lead-based materials is remodeled such materials can enter the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system. This of course results in workers or residents inhaling said material, causing adverse health effects. Some of the symptoms of lead exposure include stomachaches, cramping, constipation, or diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, persistent, unexplained fatigue, and muscle weakness.
OSHA regulations exist for several other contaminants as well, including asbestos, carbon monoxide, and toxic mold. Regulation 1910.1001 indicates the acceptable levels of asbestos an individual can be exposed to at their place of employment. This number is known as the time-weighted average limit or TWA. It is the duty of the employer to ensure that the individuals they employ are not exposed to an airborne concentration of asbestos that goes above 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter in a period of eight hours. OSHA also indicates the proper equipment (respirators, masks, containment chambers etc.) necessary to inspect, test, and remove asbestos-ridden materials. Adverse health effects associated with asbestos exposure include asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer, and several other lung-related problems. All the symptoms related to asbestos exposure can be incredibly dangerous, so avoiding this contaminant is imperative.
As for carbon monoxide, acceptable levels of exposure in a closed space is limited to 50 parts per million (ppm) (0.005%) during a period of eight hours, as per code 1917.24. The code also details the proper way to test for such a contaminant, and states that only an individual certified by NIOSH should commence testing. It also requires that a record of carbon monoxide levels be catalogued and reviewed as it is necessary. Some of the side effects of carbon monoxide exposure include headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. At high levels of exposure loss of consciousness may occur, and in serious cases even death. It is important to test for such a contaminant in the air, since diagnosing an individual with CO poisoning is very difficult unless the doctor is aware of exposure.
Finally, toxic mold exposure is regulated via code 29 CFR 1910.1200, which discusses how damaging mold exposure can be and that proper mold inspection, mold testing, and remediation are necessary to insure the health and safety of all employees. The state of California has even passed the Toxic Mold Protection Act of 2001 (SB 732), or TMPA as it is known. Although it does not detail what permissible exposure limits should be applied to this biological contaminant, it does require the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to come up with educational materials on mold, as well as the possible health effects and proper removal of mold. It also requires that employers inform their employees if hazardous levels of mold exist, or if past mold issues have occurred in a facility. Some of the symptoms of mold exposure include allergic-type reactions, nasal congestion, itchy, watery eyes, skin sensitivity, rash, cough, throat irritation, bloody nose, and flu like symptoms. Some of the more severe responses include permanent kidney damage, damage to the immune system, nervous system, respiratory arrest, and even death. Those who are more susceptible to the severe reactions associated with mold exposure include the immune compromised, the elderly, and children.
For employees of the state of California, it is important to understand that a safe, habitable environment is a right that cannot and should not be taken away. It is the job of the employer to provide a work environment that does not harm or hinder its employees. Having the proper inspection, testing, and removal of a contaminant will allow for a healthy, productive work environment.