Clearing the air

Officials deny jail has unhealthy air

Albert Goldenberg believes bad air in the county jail made him sick while he was an inmate.

Albert Goldenberg believes bad air in the county jail made him sick while he was an inmate.

Photo By Jill Wagner

When medical staff at the Sacramento County Main Jail allegedly told Albert Goldenberg his dizziness and flu-like symptoms were most likely caused by the facility’s poor air quality, he was convinced they were right. So after his release, he filed a formal complaint with the county’s Environmental Management Department.

Goldenberg is a local artist who was incarcerated for drunken driving in November 1999, the same month the jail came under intense scrutiny for unduly exposing its employees to tuberculosis (TB). An infected inmate had been placed in the general jail population for more than one month before the disease was detected.

Although county health officials say Goldenberg is the first to file a formal complaint alleging the jail’s air made him sick, he isn’t the only inmate to suffer from ill health while serving time, nor the first person to complain about bad air at the jail.

During the month he was in jail, Goldenberg says he saw numerous inmates with severe asthma and other breathing problems. But when he sought treatment from medical staff, he was told that his worsening symptoms were very common.

“They just put it off as being a sick building and said there was nothing they could do. It’s just a sick building … you just basically suffer there,” he said.

But county health officials, including county health officer, Dr. Glennah Trochet, and Sacramento County occupational health specialist, Tom Williams, strenuously deny allegations that the air in the jail is bad and making people sick.

Trochet believes Goldenberg misunderstood what he was told by medical staff: “I’ve been a physician for more than 20 years, and what I tell my patients and what they hear is very different. I don’t know in what context these comments were made.”

Williams, who has performed extensive air quality testing in the main jail for the past four years, believes the murmurings about bad air quality amount to nothing more than some disgruntled employees looking for a scapegoat.

“You get people who have to work in a crummy environment, with crummy people, and they become crummy themselves. … My (Sheriff’s) deputies don’t complain (about air quality issues). It’s usually the nurses and doctors,” said Williams. “They’ve been there a long time and it’s time to change their job … to most of them work is a four-letter word. I totally understand their psychological outlook on work. If someone can’t explain what’s ailing them, it must be the air. I’m in there without any respiratory protection and I’ve never become ill working there. I’m not one to take risks.”

Although both jail staff and inmates are free to file formal complaints, Williams said he has only received verbal grievances from staffers. When asked to complete log sheets to document the dates and times they experience symptoms, he said they usually drop the ball. In all, he’s only had four returned.

“They complain about the air then go on about their business,” he said.

Although the Environmental Management Department’s senior environmental health specialist, Anne Frey, has conducted daily health inspections in the main jail for six years, she said Goldenberg’s complaint is the first she’s received.

But Frey also readily acknowledges that the highly concentrated air in the intake/booking area has been a problem and sometimes the stench from the cells is bad. She said the county identified the problem and has taken steps to make improvements.

Trochet and the main jail’s health director, Dr. Karen Tate, declined to comment on the validity of Goldenberg’s complaint and Williams’ assessment of the situation. But both agreed that medical workers should report their concerns to the appropriate people and not use the inmates as sounding boards.

As for the county’s efforts to prevent what Williams refers to as a “potential risk” of unsafe air, the county expedited the installation of a state-of-the-art ultraviolet irradiation system last year.

Williams said this was done in response to the “hype” surrounding the TB incident. He said it was also an effort to meet the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for TB eradication. In addition, county jail officials implemented a facility-wide TB screening program for all employees assigned to the jail.

The irradiation system uses a beam of light located at the upper corner of the booking/intake room to destroy bacteria, mold and fungus. Some, but not all, of the material is exhausted out. On average, said Williams, the germicidal lights reduce up to 68 to 89 percent of human dander and other bacteria of the same type that spreads TB.

Williams also said that although these improvements were already slated for the facility, the incident opened up checkbooks without going through a lengthy budget process: “The focus on a health issue turned into a political maneuver that ultimately benefited everyone.”

Despite Williams’ claims of a stellar inspection record, the jail received one citation from the California Occupation Safety and Health Administration for unsanitary conditions in a maintenance shop restroom, and a second for improper maintenance of the room containing the main air handler—the main air ventilation intake area for the facility.

Upon inspection in September of last year, it was discovered that sewer snakes used to clean sewer lines and used furniture were being stored in the room. According to Dean Fryer of the Cal/OSHA’s Industrial Relations office, nothing should be stored in that room. He said contaminants from those items could be absorbed and distributed throughout the facility via the vents and air ducts. The county is appealing the citations.