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Fear in the Air

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.

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.

 

Mascola noted there could be risk for anyone — healthy or not — who suffered extreme, persistent exposure. "If you’re sitting and breathing the stuff seven days a week and 24 hours a day, that could be a problem. With severe high quantities," she said, "all bets are off." But this caveat, added Mascola, does not necessarily apply to the Borax building. As far as the county health department is concerned, there’s never been an ongoing proven health risk of Legionnaire’s disease at 3075 Wilshire.

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 Legionella exposure. 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 Legionella issue 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 Legionella becomes. Legionella at 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 Legionella concentration 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.

Legionella most 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 Legionella in 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 Legionella in 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 Legionella and 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."

Employee unions also are looking into allegations that administrators have begun to retaliate against two workers who’ve been among the most vocal about health worries.

At the very least, county officials have consistently downplayed concerns. One example is an October 2000 memo, circulated to staff, claiming that the one confirmed Legionnaires’ victim "is considered to be in good health at this time."

"Good health" is hardly how Wanda Cherry would have described her condition. After returning to work, she said, she had persistent respiratory problems, and her health fell into general decline. She started having seizures that forced her to surrender her driver’s license. She developed an irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure. And doctors diagnosed her with sarcoidosis, a rare, chronic autoimmune disease of uncertain origin that can cause inflammation in the lymph nodes, lungs, liver, eyes, bones, skin, joints, kidneys and spleen. It could be difficult, however, for Cherry to prove conclusively that the Legionnaires’ precipitated her decline.

Cherry, who’s 51 years old, was eventually allowed to transfer to another work site, but hasn’t worked at all since mid-2003.

The Weekly reviewed death certificates of employees who died and found no proven link to Legionella, but then, medical professionals do not routinely test for Legionella infection, even after death. Regardless, nearly all of these deceased workers — about eight in number — would have been at particular risk from Legionella, and other infections, because of their weakened health.

Besides Cherry, the sickest workers in the lawsuit include Gloria Cabral, who is dying of cancer, and Joel Geffen, a shop steward who helped bring forward health concerns before falling ill himself.

To this day, experts still speculate about the source of the Legionella that killed all those Legionnaires in Philadelphia. Likewise, the mystery of the Borax building is unlikely to be solved with certainty. Which complicates matters for a county bureaucracy that must make sure its workers are safe, and then persuade them to believe it.


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