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Fear in the Air 

A case of Legionnaires’ disease worries county workers about the safety of their building

Thursday, Nov 25 2004
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Photo by Ted Soqui

Wanda Cherry was among the first to move into the long-vacant Borax building on Wilshire Boulevard. A supervisor for the county’s Child Protection Hotline, Cherry and her team started work while construction crews were still hammering nails, putting in partitions and pulling out old carpet and tile.

"They were tearing down walls, doing all kinds of things," said Cherry. "All the workers had masks on."

The nine-story Borax building allowed the county to consolidate its 24-hour-a-day hot line with other services for endangered children. And county administrators got a deal on the rent, so good that they grabbed a 10-year lease, and didn’t balk even when the landlord insisted on a contract with no escape clause.

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Less than a year later, in early 2000, Cherry felt continually exhausted and weak. She figured she had the flu. It turned out that she’d contracted Legionnaires’ disease, and it nearly killed her. Since then, she’s suffered from deteriorating health that eventually prevented her from working.

Cherry’s among 23 of 680 county employees in the building who’ve sued the building owner over alleged exposure to Legionnaires’ disease. The building owner, Jamison Properties, denies any wrongdoing. The workers also sued the county, but a judge ruled that the county’s share of liability should be handled through the workers’-compensation system.

Legionnaires’ disease achieved notoriety after an outbreak killed 34 and infected more than 200 American Legion conventioneers in Philadelphia in 1976. Despite that scare, researchers eventually concluded that the disease rarely threatens healthy people with strong immune systems. But it’s a serious danger to people with other health problems.

The county has confirmed one case of Legionnaires’ — presumably Cherry’s — but also insisted that it’s inconclusive whether the building was the culprit. And it’s possible that it wasn’t. But an inspection in 2000 by Cal-OSHA, which oversees workplace safety, turned up high concentrations of Legionella bacteria throughout the water piping, including in the roof’s cooling tower, which is part of the air-conditioning system.

Cherry’s attorneys said they’re prepared to present evidence that other employees, too, were sickened by Legionella as well as by toxic mold, which they also claim to be in the building. An attorney for the building owner asserted very nearly the opposite. "We’ve seen all the medical records and that indicates there’s no basis for any claim," said Michael McEvoy. "And there’s no existing health hazard. It’s safe to work in that building."

The case is a classic in the sick-building genre. Building owners and some county officials seem convinced that nothing other than mass hysteria has swept through the building. Yet dozens of workers are absolutely sure that the building is harming their health, if not outright killing them. And it’s hard to see what anyone could do to make them truly feel safe while working there.

"We’re wondering what’s going to happen," said Richard Castro Jr., a union shop steward who’s also a low-level supervisor. "We’re fearful of working here. We’re asking for immediate testing of the building."

In response to recent public rallies that began last month, the county has agreed to a comprehensive evaluation, but Castro, for one, doesn’t want to wait out the results. He’s already requested a transfer to another work site. Other workers want to leave, too, though there hasn’t yet been a stampede of transfer requests. "I have a history of bronchitis that started when I started working at this building," Castro said. "I don’t know if I can trust this building anymore. I don’t know if I can trust the owner of this building."

THE 43-YEAR-OLD BORAX BUILDING was once headquarters for U.S. Borax & Chemical Co., which left for Valencia in 1993. Then, the building stood vacant for about six years. A lot can go wrong with a building that’s empty and not closely looked after, especially within the stagnant water of a rooftop air-conditioning tower. That’s a prime breeding ground for Legionella bacteria, a baffling pathogen that researchers say is surprisingly common. "Legionella is a bacteria that is ubiquitous," said Dr. Laurene Mascola, chief of the county’s Acute Communicable Disease Control Program. "If it’s so widespread in the environment and so serious, how come we’re not all dropping dead with it? The answer is that for the vast majority of people, nothing happens. A normal, healthy person almost never gets Legionnaires’ disease."

But minor and even serious cases, which mimic classic pneumonia, are often missed because doctors don’t routinely check for Legionella.

Those most at risk include the elderly, people with compromised immune systems, cancer patients on chemotherapy, organ recipients, and people with HIV, diabetes or an underlying lung condition. About 15 percent of those who get Legionnaires’ will die, but mortality is 80 percent for patients with weak immune systems who aren’t treated after getting the disease.

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