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Worries Roil Workers in Offices With Tainted Air

January 12, 1986|ERIC BAILEY | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — John Grant just hasn't felt like himself since he began working at the state office building in Long Beach three years ago. In fact, he's been feeling downright ill.

Although he had always been an active sort who enjoyed running 10 miles a day and scuba diving regularly, Grant says he drags home from work these days, his breathing raspy, his eyes irritated.

"I used to feel like I was a pretty good physical specimen for a 44-year-old," said Grant, a marine biologist with the Department of Fish and Game. "Now I come home after a day in the office and feel like I've been kicked."

Grant blames his worsened condition on an insidious, invisible culprit--a toxic chemical percolating into the air from the timber beams that crisscross the four-story downtown building where he works.

"This place is not healthy," Grant said. "I feel like this building is gradually grinding me up."


He is not the only employee at the California Veterans Memorial State Office Building who fears that the chemical, a wood preservative called pentachlorophenol, has been poisoning the air since the structure opened in late 1982.

Scores of state employees at the dozen agencies in the building have complained to their bosses. One woman was so distraught by the apparent chemical peril that her supervisors moved her out of the building. Another employee quit work altogether because of the nausea and drowsiness she attributed to indoor air pollution in the building. Also, two unions have filed grievances against the state, asking that action be taken to remedy the problem.

Aside from the day-to-day problems, the workers are concerned about the long-term effects of being exposed to pentachlorophenol, which is also called penta, and the potential risks of developing cancer or other serious illnesses.

State officials, however, maintain the $13-million building is safe, saying levels of penta in the structure's air are well within federal limits for exposure and stressing that the cancer risks are virtually non-existent.

Those experts attribute the symptoms reported by many employees--headaches, nausea, intense thirst, malaise--to "tight building syndrome," a phenomenon that sometimes occurs in new, airtight and energy-efficent structures like the State Office Building in Long Beach.


Under such conditions, indoor air pollutants such as formaldehyde fumes from building materials, cigarette smoke or airborne particles from copying machines can cause problems. The state Department of General Services, the agency in charge of all state buildings, has allocated $623,000 in an effort to correct the situation.

The money will go, in part, to upgrade the ventilation system, which has proven mostly ineffective since the building was opened.

State officials also plan to roll several coats of plastic urethane onto the building's beams to guard against the release of penta vapors. The timber was coated with urethane before the building opened, but some of the beams have developed cracks that may be allowing penta to leak.

Many of the building's 500 employees are concerned that these steps are not enough. Some, like Grant, figure something more drastic will have to be done.

"We should be out of this building," Grant said. "Everyone. They should knock it down and start all over."

Poisonous Impurities

Grant's worries are fueled in part by the toxic characteristics of penta itself. Beyond that, Grant is concerned because penta can contain poisonous impurities, including several types of dioxins and hexachlorobenzene, which are known cancer-causing substances.

Other employees are also concerned about the potential threat of dioxins and other carcinogens.

"You can put up with a headache periodically, but what happens when you get cancer 20 years from now?" said Richard Manuel, a technical-support supervisor with the state Division of Oil and Gas. "It's a little late to say we should have got out of the building."

State health officials, however, play down the chances that the penta-laced beams could cause such drastic illnesses.

"To my knowledge, no one has linked penta exposure to occupational cancer," said Dr. James Stratton, a medical epidemiologist with the Community Toxicology Unit of the state Department of Health Services.

Stratton said dioxins are less volatile than penta, and are therefore less likely to evaporate into the air when exposed to heat. There is also little chance a person could come in direct contact with dioxins because the beams are covered with the urethane, he said.

'Low Concentrations'

Hal Levin, a research specialist with the Center for Environmental Design Research at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed that the chance of the building's occupants being exposed to dioxins are "extremely low" because they are present in "such low concentrations" in penta.

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