INTERIOR'S ENVIRONMENT

Staffers Say Renovation Made Them Ill

A watchdog group says dozens of Interior employees have complained of headaches, nausea and other ailments.
A watchdog group says dozens of Interior employees have complained of headaches, nausea and other ailments. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

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By Paul Lewis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 9, 2007

From the sidewalk, nothing looks awry at 1849 C St. NW, the Interior Department's headquarters on the Mall.

But behind the 70-year-old walls, the officials charged with taking care of the great outdoors are finding problems with their own indoors. Many say they have been sickened by dust, soot and possibly noxious fumes from a massive building rehabilitation.

Since 2002, when the work began, some staffers have suffered from headaches, nausea, rashes and respiratory difficulties attributed to the construction work, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit watchdog group that has been collecting complaints.

The 12-year, $220 million renovation of the first government building designed and built by Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration is being undertaken in phases, with doors and vents sealed to ensure that employees with offices adjacent to the work do not need to be relocated. But preventing the particles of debris from percolating into the working environment has proved difficult.

Interior and General Services Administration officials overseeing the project said they have an occupational health nurse on call for medically "hypersensitive" workers, regularly publish air quality reports and, as of this week, have installed a fan system to blow out bad air.

The problems have implications for all of the Mall's aging government buildings, many of which are expected to undergo rehabilitation over the coming years. Interior officials have met with representatives of the Commerce Department, which is planning a renovation of its building, so the agencies can share what has been learned.

"Employees strongly suspect that the fumes and smoke and dust are the reason behind the [health] problems," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which he said is in touch with dozens of complainants. He added that some staff members contacting his organization have taken disability leave or are considering resigning "because they feel ill every time they walk into the building."

Internal reports, which PEER has posted on its Web site, confirm that the Interior Department has investigated complaints from staff members about the reconstruction's health impact. The latest investigation, by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, found that the renovation had exposed areas adjacent to construction work to pollutants, though inspectors recognized improvements since their evaluation last summer and concluded that there was no "immediate" health risk.

The report's main criticism concerned the failure to blow air out of the construction area and keep debris away from offices. After a year of trying to do that, officials said this week that a $70,000 investment in new fans by contractors has finally begun to work.

Don Swain, acting program manager for the project, said he is pleased with the new system but acknowledged that it is not yet working completely. "We're getting there," he said, adding that inspections in the corridors and offices used by staff members, published weekly, indicate that the air is clean.

But those inspections paint a mixed picture. A report last month gave the air quality the all-clear but found "excessive construction dust" in both sides of the building. Air quality notices, based on guidelines by the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association, are posted at the entrance to the building. This week's update warns employees that they could experience air quality "concerns," dust and noise as a result of the work. The air grade is code yellow: caution.

In conversations during their lunch hour this week, many workers outside the building said they or their colleagues had health problems that they believe were related to the construction work. But none would give their full names. One employee, Elizabeth, said department managers would "deny everything anyway."

She said she grew sick after seeing "black stuff" emerging from air vents. "I'd lose my voice, the air would tighten up around my throat, and I'd get really sick," she said, adding that she ended up working from home.

Others, including managers and analysts, spoke of sneezing, congestion, headaches and nausea. "There's always something wrong with that building," one employee said. "When I started in 1986, they told me not to drink the water from the fountain. I never did find out why."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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