Thursday, January 11, 2007

Diary of a Sick Worker at the Northampton County Dustbowl

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThere's "something in the air" at Northampton County's courthouse. And it's making people sick. This first happened over a year ago, when courthouse renovations were made in the Recorder of Deeds, Register of Wills, Civil Division and District Attorney's office. People became seriously ill from mold, dust and Fiberglas particles. One employee in the Register of Wills office, who couldn't stop breaking out in rashes, was forced to quit.

Eventually, thanks to county employee Mary Posko, the state stepped in and forced the county to take some steps to reduce whatever was floating in the air. Butz designated an employee whose sole job was to sweep floors to reduce dust.

After a few months, that employee disappeared.

Now the project has spread to the criminal division, law library and public defender's office. As Butz rushes to complete a contract that is $3 million over budget, there's a temptation to cut corners. And guess what? There's a lot more dust in the halls. Butz is also tearing out asbestos throughout three floors.

People are getting sick again.

In the Recorder's office, where I work, four title searchers simultaneously caught pneumonia. A physician told one of them that his pneumonia is a strain never seen before. One lady who works in the criminal divison tells me she throws up every evening when she gets home. Most have the same symptoms - itching, coughing, headaches and watery eyes.

One began keeping a diary in December, and I'll share some excerpts with you.

December 14, 2006: We experienced dry burning in our nasal passages and throats. Our eyes were burning and we had headaches. There was no strong smell but we had bittersweet tastes in our throats. I have asthma and had to start using my inhaler. We contacted a supervisor to find out what was happening, but he never got back to us. At the end of the day, as I was leaving, I noticed "asbestos warning " signs for the first time.

December 15, 2006: At 8:55 AM, my eyes are burning and my nasal passages are drying up. It is difficult to swallow so I have to continuously drink water. At 12:00 to 1:00 PM, I went to lunch and felt fine. At 1:55 PM, headaches are returning and my nasal passages are burning a bit now. I don't see particles in the air but something in the office seems to trigger these effects. I didn't feel this way at lunch or when I'm at home. Something in this office air is definitely making us sick.

December 20, 2006: I was off the past two days and felt fine. Now, my eyes and nasal passages are irritated again.

December 21, 2006: It's really bad here today. My nasal passage is itchy and I have a hard time breathing. My arms and chest itch. My face is flushed and I have a rash on my neck and chest. When I ran an errand to the criminal division, I saw a construction worker wearing a mask with two round filters. The doors to a courtroom were open and there was a fog on the floor. I don't know if that triggered my allergies but the itching inside my nose was horrible.

December 22, 2006: Last night, after leaving the courthouse, I had an asthma attack. I had to use my inhaler and take benadryl. At 10:20 AM, my entire body is beginning to itch. My face and arms are blotchy.

December 23, 2006: There was a very strong gas smell in the office and in the corridors. This smell lasted the entire work day, and everyone complained about the smell. I had a headache. It was as if some house gas pipe had broken.

December 26, 2006: I've been itchy all morning with a dry cough and burning eyes. I can't take it anymore. I'm getting nauseous. I have to go home.

December 28, 2006: I have a bittersweet taste in the back of my throat again. I'm coughing and my eyes are dry.

January 2, 2007: This morning I'm itchy all over and am getting a headache. My eyes are watery. After lunch, the headache got much worse. Demolition is going on directly above me. Side doors have been open most of the morning, letting dust come right into my working area. The hallway is cloudy. Whenever I closed one of the hall doors to avoid breathing dust, someone would prop the door open.
Last Friday, I asked the state DEP to inspect for asbestos. On Monday, I also spoke with the county's Director of Public Works, Steve DeSalva. I'll tell you about that in my next post.


Anonymous said...

I was recently in the Register of Wills office, and as I was walking down the hall to the cavern where they have stashed the that office, I felt like I was breathing in alot of dust. For about 3 hours after I left the courthouse, I felt some irritation in my throat and chest. I was only there a few minutes, I can only imagine what those poor workers suffer.
I hope that you can shed some light on this air down there.
On a side note, if it was asbetos I am sure Lamont McClure will be happy to represent you in litigation!.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 10:25,

I hope to be able to report on the administrration's reaction tomorrow.

I feel very bad for the ladies in the Register of Wills. They are the nicest people in the courthouse, and have suffered more than anyone.

I'll call McClure right away!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing this to the forefront again. Once again, whatever they are doing in this courthouse "some of it I understand is removal of asbestos" the workers in the courthouse are experiencing itching, rashes and breathing problems. When you call Mr. Stoffa to express your concern, he says "we will look into it, it will not be swept under the carpet" and yet we see no improvements or any efforts being made to protect the employees or address the issues of itching, rashes or breathing. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

This sounds terrible! The bittersweet taste that has been noted is probably not asbestos (it has no taste), but could easily be acid based cleaners used to clean walls, paint, and other things during reconstuction. If there is enough airborne that you have a taste in your mouth, there is enough to make you sick, nauseous especially. Maybe the county should provide gas masks for their employees, I think that'd be pretty cool!

Bernie O'Hare said...

To Bernie O'Hare 4, You're right. 'Taint asbestos. I found that out late last week. I'll be following this up w/ amother post tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

None of this is really funny, if what you're saying is true. This job should be stopped immediately and some governmental agency should be monitoring the air in the building. Today- sore throat and teary eyes; tomorrow- cancer, mesothielioma.

Chris Casey said...

The Butz people probably subcontracted , Larry, Darrell, and Darrell, the anything for a buck guys to clear the asbestos material. and you are still over budget. I think Glenn Reibman's DRTBA office should be relocated there. At the very least, you should declare it a "smoker's rights" Zone.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 3:43, What I've written is factually accurate. People in the courthouse are getting sick, and in large numbers. The cause of that illness might be disputed, but it certainly must have something to do w/ the renovations. I hope your worse fears are not realized.

Anonymous said...

bernie, at the end of the day there are the people who have to clean up the rest of the mess left behind from the crews working there all day. they don't have gas masks either. they proably should.they are the custodians who work for the county.