Luisa Fernandez Vasquez keeps seeing an old friend in her dreams lately, a coworker who died years ago of cancer.
In Fernandez’s dream, Susan Taylor calls out to her, asking her to speak up about the Orange County Social Services Agency building situated in an industrial neighborhood on Eckhoff Street in Orange.
So she is.
Fernandez, 57, who retired in November after working in the building for decades as a social worker, is suffering from a rare bone cancer called myeloma. Now she thinks she knows thre reason.
A week before she retired, Fernandez read a Voice of OC article about a group of current and former county social workers who are suing the county, alleging that toxic fumes in the “Red Room” near the basement of the Eckhoff building have made them sick.
The suit claims the Red Room has caused workers to suffer from lupus and other autoimmune diseases and in two cases, birth defects in their children.
Across the street from the Eckhoff building 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 lawsuit, as is the real estate broker involved in the transfer of the land.
The symptoms described by the workers — which include extreme fatigue, severe eye pain and headaches — were eerily similar to Fernandez’s, and they suddenly put her cancer, first diagnosed in 2005, in a different light.
Fernandez, who is undergoing chemotherapy treatments, said she spent the last decade working “about 10 feet” from the Red Room. She has now filed her own lawsuit.
“When I was first diagnosed, my doctor asked me if I’ve ever been around toxic chemicals. I said no, I’m a social worker,” Fernandez said, adding “I didn’t fit into the other normal categories.”
There is no known cause of myeloma, but research has shown a higher incidence of the cancer among people who work in petroleum-related industries or are regularly exposed to a range of petrochemicals.
“There’s certainly is evidence for that connection,” said Dr. Brian Durie, chairman of the International Myeloma Foundation.
Durie said there’s been recent work done on 9/11 firefighters that has shown a link between myeloma and toxic substances. “It’s been shown that certain buildings do have toxic exposures, either because of how they’ve been built or the ventilation,” he said.
If there are many health-related issues with workers in one specific area, testing makes sense, Durie said. “This is the sort of thing that needs to be carefully studied.”
The Eckhoff building workers began complaining about the room in 2009. Besides the lawsuits, several workers’ compensation cases have been filed. Fernandez has had regular contact in recent weeks with the workers who filed the lawsuit.
“I think I may have scared a lot of them,” Fernandez said. “They have a lot of the symptoms that I had.”
Citing the pending litigation, county officials have declined to comment on the workers’ allegations. In department memos and discussions with workers, however, Social Service Agency officials have insisted that there’s nothing wrong with the Red Room or the Eckhoff building, pointing out that an industrial hygienist inspected the area in 2009 and concluded it was safe.
The county has resisted an order from a workers’ compensation court judge that same year for more extensive testing of the soils beneath the Red Room.
This month, two court hearings might decide the testing issue.
On Jan. 17 a workers’ compensation judge will take testimony in a private hearing, and on Jan. 30 the issue will be discussed publicly in Superior Court.
Fernandez said she has decided to speak out because so many workers say they are afraid and are suffering reprisals at work because of their legal battle against the county.
“Just think of the people that are still there,” Fernandez said. “And think about how many more people could be harmed. Right now, it’s just the few of us.”
“How many pregnant women are in that building whose kids might be affected by this? As social workers, we take care of people, and they aren’t even considering their staff right now,” she said.
Fernandez says she now just wants to keep her promise to her friend.
“We still don’t know how long it takes for this process for people to become ill,” Fernandez said. “Maybe we didn’t know back then when I developed this. But what makes me angry now is that we know. And that’s what makes me angry, the lack of response.”