Workers Allege Room in County Building Caused Illnesses

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Workers allege that a room in this county building is toxic and has caused multiple illnesses and birth defects. (Photo by: Norberto Santana Jr.)

Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011 | A years-long battle between the County of Orange and adoption workers over a county building that employees say is toxic and has caused sicknesses and birth defects arrived in a courtroom this month.

Adoption workers with the county's Children and Family Services division have alleged in both workers' compensation cases and a suit filed in Orange County Superior Court that they became ill from working in a room at the building situated in the 800 block of North Eckhoff Street in Orange.

The workers claim their sicknesses — which include rapid hair loss, eye pain, depression, heightened blood-cell counts and autoimmune diseases like lupus — were caused by working in the so-called Red Room. Two employees are also attributing their children's birth defects to fumes in the room.

The workers first began complaining about the room in 2009. Several workers' compensation cases have been filed in addition to the lawsuit. A hearing on one of those cases took place on Sept. 20. Another is scheduled for next month.

Citing the pending litigation, county officials declined to comment.

The room remains in use, however, and in June county Social Services Agency Director Michael Riley sent a department-wide email on the issue. Riley wrote that the building is safe and described the workers' claims as "unfounded accusations."

'A Sink for Toxic Materials'

The building houses hundreds of employees who work for the county Social Services Agency. It sits in the midst of an industrial zone beside the Sheriff Department's communications equipment headquarters and down the street from the county public works yard.

Across the street is National Oilwell Varco, a company that manufactures oil drilling equipment. The company occupied the Social Services Agency site before the land was transferred to the county in the late 1990s. The company is also named in the workers' Superior Court suit, as is the real estate broker involved in the transfer of the land.

The workers claim in the suit, filed Nov. 5, 2010, that the Red Room — so named because of its red cubicle dividers — was formerly a storage room that had little circulation.

The suit alleges that "Room A005/Red Room had inadequate ventilation which allowed the chemicals to accumulate and had no vapor barriers between the ground floors and the subsoil, allowing these contaminants that entered the subsoil during the 1970s and 1980s during VARCO Defendants manufacturing process — to migrate out of the soil and into the room A005/Red Room."

The suit goes on to say: "Defendants then situated cubicles and directed plaintiffs, Sarah Kirk and Jaqueline Goode, to the converted room designated as their permanent work area within Room A005/Red Room."

Most of the workers named in the cases declined to comment, saying they feared reprisals from county officials.

But Kirk, who no longer works for the county, said county officials doomed her when they sent her to work in the Red Room, calling it "a sink for toxic materials."

Kirk repeats the claims of many who worked in the room: hair falling out in clumps, erratic blood cell counts, depression, eye pain, immune disorders, multiple miscarriages and birth defects.

"My son was born with profound disabilities. He is total care — no speech, no movement, unable to walk."

After the birth of her son, Gavin, "I never went back in the Red Room," Kirk said.

She became pregnant again and delivered a healthy girl in June 2005.

Another plaintiff, Dan Sjule, said that after he was transferred to the Red Room in 2000, "my health all of sudden took a turn, and I was going to doctors."

"For me, it's multiple health systems that have broken down that are immunological," said Sjule, who has been on disability since 2005.

By 2004, he was diagnosed with immune deficiency disorder. Sjule has continued having a series of health complications such as asthma and  lupus.

'The Building Is Safe'

In his email to employees, Riley asserted, "The building is safe, and if it were or is ever determined not to be, SSA will be the first to take corrective action."

He concluded, "Please know that we would never, ever allow any of our staff to work in any situation that could be detrimental to their health."

Riley did, however, acknowledge, that two years ago concerns were raised about "a stale odor that some suspected may have been caused by mold." The county hired an industrial hygienist to inspect the facility and issued a complete report, which was presented publicly, Riley wrote.

Those findings "concluded there were more mold spores in the outside air than were contained inside the 840 building," according to the email.

Yet a memo sent the same month by the Orange County Employees Association stated that the inspection "detected several organic chemicals and the presence of higher levels of formaldehyde. The levels of formaldehyde in the room were 13 times higher than outdoor levels on that date."

In a June letter responding to the OCEA concerns, Bill Campbell, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, stated the pending litigation prevents him from commenting specifically on the case. He wrote that he was concerned about the workers' fears that they would suffer reprisals if they talked publicly about the building.

"It is imperative that employees feel free to raise ongoing workplace safety and health issues without fear of reprisal," Campbell asserted.

"In addition to being a violation of State and Federal Law, retaliation of any sort against an employee that raises concerns about workplace safety and health is against County policy and will not be tolerated."

Please contact Norberto Santana Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosantana.

 

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