Some Say New EEOC Headquarters Is Making Them Sick

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's new headquarters on M Street NE is prompting grumbles.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's new headquarters on M Street NE is prompting grumbles. (By Steve Vogel -- The Washington Post)
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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's office hazardous to your health?

Apparently it is to some of the 500 employees and contractors who work at the agency's 131 M St. NE headquarters.

Since November, when they moved to the new facility, employees have complained of headaches, dizziness, coughing and respiratory problems.

Basically, the office has gas -- formaldehyde.

"The exact source has not been determined," said Michael McGill, a spokesman for the General Services Administration, which leases the building.

He added that in new or newly renovated space, "it is common for both the building materials used and the furnishings to emit, or 'off-gas,' various [chemicals] that were used in fabrication of these materials."

Formaldehyde dissipates over time, but the experts don't know how much time.

In addition to the health issues, the chemical has been harmful to the morale of employees, many of whom didn't want to move from their centrally located office at 18th and L streets NW to a still-developing neighborhood north of Union Station, according to leaders of the American Federation of Government Employees.

Several spots in the workplace were tested, and the highest concentration of formaldehyde, 0.046 parts per million, was found in Room 5SW26L, an interior office on the fifth floor, according to a report from Applied Environmental, the Herndon testing firm the GSA hired.

That's well below the Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard of 0.75 but above the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's limit of 0.016. It's the OSHA standard that governs. NIOSH only makes recommendations, but maybe its recommendations should rule. Results from a second set of tests are due this week.

Formaldehyde is an industrial chemical used in building materials and household products. "Low levels of formaldehyde can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin. It is possible that people with asthma may be more sensitive to the effects of inhaled formaldehyde," reports the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Although the registry says the gas has a strong smell, employees have not reported any unusual odors. And most staff members apparently have not reported any problems, though neither management nor union officials could provide an exact number.

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