Wanda Cherry was among the first to move into the long-vacant Borax building on Wilshire Boulevard. A supervisor for the countys 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 didnt balk even when the landlord insisted on a contract with no escape clause.
Less than a year later, in early 2000, Cherry felt continually exhausted and weak. She figured she had the flu. It turned out that shed contracted Legionnaires disease, and it nearly killed her. Since then, shes suffered from deteriorating health that eventually prevented her from working.
Cherrys among 23 of 680 county employees in the building whove 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 countys 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 its a serious danger to people with other health problems.
The county has confirmed one case of Legionnaires presumably Cherrys but also insisted that its inconclusive whether the building was the culprit. And its possible that it wasnt. 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 roofs cooling tower, which is part of the air-conditioning system.
Cherrys attorneys said theyre 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. "Weve seen all the medical records and that indicates theres no basis for any claim," said Michael McEvoy. "And theres no existing health hazard. Its 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 its hard to see what anyone could do to make them truly feel safe while working there.
"Were wondering whats going to happen," said Richard Castro Jr., a union shop steward whos also a low-level supervisor. "Were fearful of working here. Were 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, doesnt want to wait out the results. Hes already requested a transfer to another work site. Other workers want to leave, too, though there hasnt 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 dont know if I can trust this building anymore. I dont 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 thats empty and not closely looked after, especially within the stagnant water of a rooftop air-conditioning tower. Thats 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 countys Acute Communicable Disease Control Program. "If its so widespread in the environment and so serious, how come were 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 dont 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 arent treated after getting the disease.