A dirty shade of green

Is Cal-EPA’s slick new headquarters a sick building?

Mike Horner and Leslie Fair say the new California Environmental Protection Agency building has worsened their health problems.

Mike Horner and Leslie Fair say the new California Environmental Protection Agency building has worsened their health problems.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Touted as the ultimate in eco-friendlybuildings, the new California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal-EPA) building unveiled on Earth Day last year appears to not be as green and clean as advertised.

Shortly after agency employees moved in, complaints about bad indoor air began and some people started getting sick.

“It was supposed to be this big, beautiful, green building, and guess what? It’s not,” said Leslie Fair, who works for the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).

Fair, who has asthma, started having noticeable trouble breathing not long after being relocated last November. While housed at the former DTSC site, her asthma was under control and she did not depend on daily medication.

Since moving into the Cal-EPA building, she has had to take medication daily and use an inhaler in order to breathe.

When the Cal-EPA high-rise at 10th and I streets debuted, its interior was not finished and fumes from toxic solvents and other chemicals impacted some employees, particularly those suffering from respiratory illnesses.

Unlike most spanking new commercial buildings, the structure was not “baked out,” or heated up to burn out toxic fumes and dust from building materials, before opening. And, the new state-of-the-art ventilation system has not functioned as billed.

Some blame the questionable indoor air on pressure to open the building as soon as possible. “They were so hell bent on getting everyone in there, as every day of delay cost thousands of dollars,” said one Cal-EPA worker, who asked that his name not be used.

Air quality complaints came on the heels of negative publicity about the lack of access to bathrooms and other areas for physically disabled workers, but remained below the surface. Months later, the construction work has wound down but complaints about sick air continue.

More than 3,000 employees from several agencies, including the air, water and waste boards, work at Cal-EPA headquarters, which was built by Thomas Brothers, former owner of the Sacramento Kings. It is owned by the city of Sacramento and leased to Cal-EPA.

Mike Horner, like Fair, has a pre-existing asthma condition, which he says has also been aggravated by something wafting through the Cal-EPA building.

“Everyday I go in I have problems,” said Horner, who is a senior hazardous material specialist and has worked for DTSC since 1985.

Horner said his health has gone from bad to worse the last several months. He has had a number of acute attacks and suspects something in the air weakens his already compromised respiratory system.

An understanding supervisor allows him to work at home, but he pointed out a large part of his work is interactive and he needs to meet regularly with his co-workers.

When he is well enough to work at headquarters, Horner said his health follows a familiar downward trajectory. After a few hours in the building, his throat gets irritated; he starts coughing and feels as if someone is pressing a thumb on his throat. The second day on the job, his lungs start constricting and he starts using his inhaler to open up his airways. By the end of the week, Horner said he hacks constantly and feels wretched.

Employees with no history of respiratory illnesses have also begun having breathing problems.

“Since moving in, I have had some difficulty breathing, gotten sore throats and felt like I was getting a cold,” said one worker who also asked that her name not be used because of fears of job repercussions. “It has happened enough times that I doubt it’s normal.”

These employees want some answers but complain they have been essentially ignored. Late last year, one of the workers’ unions—the California Association of Professional Scientists (CAPS)—took the agency to task for its “cavalier attitude.”

In early 2000, agency scientists raised concerns about the building’s air quality. After much prodding, CAPS representatives pressured Cal-EPA to test the air before opening the building.

The Air Resources Board (ARB) tested a few of the floors for several common indoor pollutants, including formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds, benzene and acetaldehyde, which irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs and are carcinogenic at high levels.

The monitoring results, however, were not released until a month after employees started moving in, and two months later than promised. Later, the air board tested the other floors.

The ARB’s testing revealed that some of the potent chemicals were well above Proposition 65 risk-free levels, although not in the danger zone. The pollutants “could pose a hazard to those working in the building, especially those with respiratory problems, as well as pregnant women and children,” stated a CAPS letter to Cal-EPA secretary Winston Hickox.

The test results were not the only cause for concern. Critics said the monitoring was too limited and the testing agency, the ARB, was not independent from Cal-EPA upper management.

“You can only find what you are looking for,” Horner noted.

Other than testing, Cal-EPA hasnot done much to address the real or perceived problems.

In January, Horner filed a formal complaint seeking improved air quality and an investigation, including a survey of employees, to find out the number impacted and the kind of problems they may be having.

“I would hope that simple pride in our accomplishments, our mission and our capabilities would drive a solution,” he wrote.

Since that time he has seen little action. It was not until mid-May that a representative from the personnel office sat down with him. The underwhelming response does not surprise Fair, who said it was pointless to complain because the powers-that-be do not consider the indoor air to be a problem.

Cal-EPA admits that there have been complaints about the building’s air.

“We are still going through the shake-down period and fine tuning things,” said William Ruckeyser, Cal-EPA spokesman.

He added that the levels of pollutants found inside the building were on a par with those measured in other large office buildings. The most common concern was said to be the smell of chemicals, and construction workers were prohibited from using solvents during working hours. But there were occasional lapses, which management hoped would be reported. Ruckeyser was unable to say how many complaints there have been, but noted some employees were just extra-sensitive.

Fair estimated that between one-eighth and one-fourth of the people in her department have been affected by something unhealthy in the air: “It is like a wave that hits during flu season, but it isn’t flu season.”

Employees have been encouraged to direct their complaints to the building manager and management has recommended that those with breathing trouble have fans at their desks. Critics noted that blowing the air around, however, does not lower chemical concentrations.

The situation is not helped by the fact that there are no state standards for indoor air pollutants, which can be more concentrated than outdoor sources because of the lack of dilution.

Ironically, at an April presentation to the board, ARB staff noted that the failure to address air concerns at the local or state levels was one of the most common criticisms expressed at a recent seminar. There are fears that Cal-EPA employees with compromised respiratory illnesses are like canaries in the coal mine.

“If you are older, pregnant or have a weaker system, it will hit you first,” Fair said.

But just what the “it” is, is still a big mystery.

As part of an agreement with workers’ unions, Cal-EPA will carry out a second round of testing the week of June 18. This time, it will use an outside agency.

Horner, however, is far from impressed: “It is a dismal record for any employer and it’s disgusting for the state’s environmental agency.”