Amid concerns that toxins at a county office building in Orange have caused health problems, experts hired by the county told a packed room of Social Services Agency workers Wednesday that the Eckhoff building’s toxin levels are completely safe for their health.
“My medical opinion is that this location is safe,” said Dr. Stephen Munday, Imperial County’s public health officer, who was hired by Orange County to review soil and air tests at the building. “If I had to work in this building, if I had to bring my family to work in this building, I would have absolutely no qualms about that whatsoever.”
But many workers and their labor representatives remain unconvinced.
“It’s a fact that there are employees that were housed in this building that ended up being severally hampered [with] illnesses,” said Sally Ramirez of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Nearly a dozen social service workers who work in the building and are represented by the Orange County Employees Association or OCEA have filed suit against the county alleging that their health ailments are connected to their work at Eckhoff. OCEA representatives have been critical of county efforts to keep the building open.
“We don’t understand why we would go further and harm another group of employees,” Ramirez said.
It was sold to the county in the late 1990s after being used to produce oil drilling equipment.
Several of the social workers filing suit against the county suffer from a host of autoimmune diseases such as lupus. One former employee has been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer connected to industrial solvents such as the ones used in the building before it was occupied by the county.
Now county officials want to move about 50 workers back into an area near the Red Room, which is drawing strong opposition from unions.
“I still feel that we’re taking an enormous risk,” said Ramirez, asking why the county doesn’t find another office for the workers.
Social Services Agency Director Michael Riley told workers he’s confident it’s a safe place to work. “We want you to know that we have done everything we can to determine that this building is safe,” said Riley.
“What we’re saying is, the information we have now [is] that building, that area is safe for you to go into,” he added.
Workers wouldn't be placed directly in the Red Room, officials said.
After perchloreothene, a likely carcinogen, was found last year in soil under the building, the county moved to evacuate the building and commission more tests.
A representative of GeoKinetics told workers at Wednesday’s forum that while several carcinogens were found in the building’s soil, they were at levels that presented a one-in-a-million risk of developing cancer if exposed nearly continuously for 30 years.
As for the building’s air, Ben Kollmeyer of Forensic Analytical said eight chemicals were found at greater levels than background studies but were still below a one-in-a-million health risk.
Kollmeyer said that the compounds that were found at levels for which the state requires further testing are: benzene; 1,2 dichloroethane; tetrachloroethylene; 1,4 dioxane; ethyl benzene; and chloroform.
He said that with the exception of 1,4 dioxane, all of them were “around the median of what’s been found in other buildings.”
The dioxane was found at “a little higher level” than typical residential or office environments, he said.
Union representatives said they had just received the county’s findings and haven’t yet had a chance to evaluate them.