By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
TELL THAT TO WANDA CHERRY, or several dozen other staffers, and their reactions will range from disbelief and exasperation to anger. Before getting really sick, Cherry recalled that she always felt cold in the building, partly because her work area was directly in the path of vents. "I would work wearing a coat with a hood, a hat and gloves, extra socks. I’d be shaking at my desk trying to do my work, shaking from chills, headaches, fever."
She finally checked into the hospital, where she remained for about a week. Doctors tested her for everything they could think of; for a few days, they feared she would die. Then, in desperation, they thought to check for Legionella. And she rallied when doctors applied the appropriate antibiotics.
Most of the alleged victims have elected to pursue litigation rather than settle for workers’-comp claims. Their suit targets Jamison Properties, whose general partners are David Young Lee and Hee-Sook Fung. Lee and Fung preside over a small empire of office properties in the L.A. area. The county also rents other properties from Jamison, and has no major issues with Jamison’s overall performance, said Carlos Marquez, manager of lease acquisitions for the county. It was that solid record that helped make the county feel comfortable in inking a 10-year lease without an escape clause.
The lawsuit has complicated efforts to sleuth the chain of events at the building. County officials say the owners have declined to release maintenance records as well as original documentation of privately conducted testing. Attorneys for employees are cagey with their documents, too, refusing for now to provide employees’ medical records. Another group of employees — who are not part of the original lawsuit — also have come forward, claiming that all 26 people examined in recent weeks have tested positive for Legionellaexposure. Still, exposure to the virus is not necessarily cause for alarm in healthy individuals.
An expert with no ties to this case said she lets clients know they have a Legionellaissue if water-system samples are greater than 1,000 colony-forming units per milliliter, which is the measurement scale. At least as important, however, is how widespread the Legionellabecomes. Legionellaat more than 30 percent of sample sites is a concern in hospitals, said Janet E. Stout, who directs the Special Pathogens Laboratory at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.
The building flunked by both measures.
Tests in September 2000 indicated a Legionellaconcentration in the rooftop cooling tower of 2,220 colony-forming units per milliliter. Tests in October 2000 found the concentration of colony-forming units at 840 in the third-floor nursery, 1,120 in the lunchroom tap water and 2,820 in the seventh-floor women’s restroom. And 12 of 20 test areas recorded positive for Legionella. That’s 60 percent of sample sites, well above the unofficial 30 percent standard for hospitals.
Legionellamost often poses a danger when it is inhaled via water droplets in the air, which is why air conditioners -present a risk.
After Cal-OSHA’s findings, the building owner flushed and chlorinated the water system. Only two of 60 tests revealed Legionellain November 2000. Samples taken on two dates in 2001 were negative, though fewer than a dozen areas were tested each time. More recent tests, commissioned by attorneys for the employees, turned up Legionellain 28 percent of samples, below the 30 percent standard.
Cherry and other employees filed their lawsuit in 2001. Recently, the pace of the litigation has increased, just as the union that represents many of the workers has begun to stage rallies.
And Jamison Properties has begun to devote attention to the building as never before. During a recent visit, it looked its best in years, with some freshly painted walls and shampooed carpets on several floors. The cleaners made it in just ahead of investigators from the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration. On several occasions, the building owner has made it difficult for specialists in Legionellaand mold to get into the building. Just last week, building management canceled access at the last minute for a hygienist hired by the Service Employees union.
THE COUNTY CONTENDS THAT IT’S just trying to do the right thing. "We’re kind of in the same boat as the union," said David Waage, personnel officer for the Department of Children and Family Services. "Both sides on the lawsuit have not been providing us with full information."
The county was just dismissed as a defendant in another Legionnaires’ lawsuit, over 11 alleged cases of the disease in 2002 at Good Samaritan Hospital. The families of three patients who died and three more who got sick are suing, said William Berman, an attorney working on the case. One lawsuit had accused county health officials of acting too slowly to contain the outbreak and of failing to alert the public, but the court ruled that the county had immunity from liability. The county had conceded publicly that it made no announcement of the outbreak, but also insisted it had handled the situation properly. Good Samaritan denies any wrongdoing and attributes the patient deaths to causes other than Legionnaires’ disease.
In the Borax building episode, "from the beginning to today, it’s been a wrestling match," said Tom O’Connor, communications director for Local 535, "with the union trying to get the county and its various agencies to respond. The Board of Supervisors has failed categorically to protect the health of not only the workers, but the children who come into the building."
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