An Orange County Superior Court judge has ordered the county to do toxic testing at a building where more than a dozen social workers have alleged that toxic vapors have made them sick.
Over the past two years, attorneys for the county and for an increasing number of workers have battled over whether the tests are needed, mainly in workers' compensation hearings.
On Monday, the issue was aired in Superior Court, where Judge Steven L. Perk ordered county officials to conduct toxic testing at the site.
County officials purchased the Eckhoff building, which is situated in an industrial zone in Orange, in the late 1990s after the property had been used by Varco, a petroleum drilling company.
The county's Social Services Agency later established a family service center at the site. Numerous workers, all assigned to a small area nicknamed "the Red Room," suspect that toxic vapors have made them sick.
Social workers complain of autoimmune diseases like lupus as well as birth defects in children born to workers stationed in the Red Room. One woman who sat across from the Red Room was diagnosed with myeloma, a cancer with a disproportionate number of sufferers from the petroleum industry.
Since workers first began expressing their fears about the building, county officials have consistently said they don't believe there's any reason for concern. Yet in a recent survey, more than 40 workers expressed some level of concern about their sickness and the building.
After hearing both sides on Monday, Perk quickly made up his mind. "The request to do the testing is probably appropriate. I'll grant it," Perk said.
Perk said he would leave the timing of the tests to both sides in the case, stressing that it be conducted in the "least obtrusive" manner that doesn't interfere with the office's operations.
The tests probably will be conducted over weekends. Perk ordered the plaintiffs to pay for any extra security at the building while monitors for the toxic tests are installed.
County officials on Monday said their own testing at the building would begin on Feb. 25. County CEO Tom Mauk announced the testing initiative earlier this month after county supervisors supported the concerns of workers in pressing for toxic tests.
Attorneys for the social service workers said they expected testing to begin sometime in March with results about 60 days afterward.
A status conference in the case was scheduled for April 16.
— NORBERTO SANTANA JR.