Workers in the federal Health Resources Administration building in Hyattsville are battling an unusual medical problem of their own: spores in the basement.
Since their department as relocated to the basement of the HRA building, about two dozen workers in the agency's student assistance division have complained of a variety of ailments, including breathing problems, skin irritation, itchy eyes and scratchy throats. One employe came down with pneumonia.
To blame, according to a government health consultant, are three types of microscopic spores that have grown in the basement because of its high humidity -- the result of leaky pipes and poor ventilation.
"It's always embarrassing when this happens to part of the public health service," said James Walsh. Hra's executive officer.
Walsh said HRA considered placing the employes who complained of health problems on administrative leave to give them time to recover. But medical experts reported the leave would do no good since the problems the spores cause persist anyway "years in some cases," accoring to Walsh.
Since the office was moved to the basement, sick time has doubled. A number of workers have threatened to quit unless something is done. And almost everyone wants to be moved somewhere -- anywhere -- above ground, according to one HRA employe, who works in the basement.
"They think it's a dump," said the worker, who asked not to be identified. "They'd like to anyplace but here."
Walsh conceded that ventilation throughout the building -- especially in the basement -- is "substandard."
While agency officials ponder just what to do in the long term, they have allocated $1,500 for seven dehumidifiers that will be installed in the basement area today.
The war against the spores cannot begin until the humidity is lowered to 40 percent.
Once that's done, the pipes must be repaired, and the contaminated acoustic ceiling tile, wallboard and carpeting that helped spawn the spores must be replaced.
Federal industrial hygiene and epidemiology consultant Victor Avitto, who inspected the HRA basement, said the problem may actually get worse before it gets better. When a contaminated area dies out, Avitto said, more spores enter the air, where they cause the health problems.
Avitto said the spores are common but that they may cause health problems when they are present in unusually large numbers -- as in HRA's basement.
But prospects for getting all HRA workers out of the basement soon do not seem bright. Says John Moscato, deputy administrator of the agency, "We've got a lot of people in this building -- and don't know where to put them."