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Janitor Blames Illness on Chemicals : Post Office Removes Custodial Products

May 10, 1987|JEFF BURBANK | Times Staff Writer

The U. S. Postal Service has removed four cleaning substances containing hazardous chemicals from the Culver City Main Post Office after a janitor complained that he contracted a disabling illness from exposure to the chemicals.

Henry Yamaguchi, superintendent of the Culver City post office, said the products that were removed contained "different kinds of acids" and have been replaced with safer, non-acidic cleansers. He said the substances, used to clean toilets and floors, are not unsafe if used properly. They were replaced "because we want to eliminate the possibility of anybody splashing it on themselves."

The Postal Service's investigation was in response to a complaint from Richard Graham, a janitor hired by the Culver City post office in November. Graham said he has experienced breathing and gastric problems that he said were caused by fumes from the cleansers and from poor ventilation inside the post office.

Safety Manager's Letter

Yamaguchi said he learned of Graham's complaint about three months after Graham began working at the post office.

Terry R. McMillian, a Postal Service safety manager based in Marina del Rey, stated in an April 16 letter to the Culver City post office that the four solvents "should be discarded and replaced with a safer and approved substitute." McMillian also requested that the post office list all of its custodial and maintenance products and submit the list to his office for approval.

According to U.S. Labor Department documents obtained from the Postal Service, the cleaning products taken from the Culver City post office included Des Tapa, Odorcide Bowl & Porcelain Cleaner made by the Del Rey Chemical Co., Epocrest Hardener 951 made by Corrosive Liquid Furane Products Co. and an unnamed product made by CRC Chemicals.

The products mentioned in the documents contained such "hazardous mixtures" as trichloroethane, sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid and potassium hydroxide. Prolonged exposure to the chemicals may cause respiratory and eye irritation, dizziness and nausea, the documents stated.

Skin Rash

Graham said the Postal Service sent him to a dermatologist for a skin rash. After examining him, Dr. Randall P. Hrabko of Westchester wrote to the Postal Service on April 28, saying that "many of the substances Mr. Graham works with do indeed appear toxic . . . (and) could cause skin as well as sinus and respiratory problems in anyone given sufficient exposure."

Graham's physician, Dr. Steven E. Levy of Beverly Hills, wrote to the Postal Service on April 27 that Graham had "chemically induced rhinitis and bronchitis" and recommended that he be given a job in an area free from exposure to the chemicals.

Levy, however, in a telephone interview said he based his diagnosis on "common sense" and that he would need more data to be certain that the chemicals caused Graham's illness.

Graham has charged that the fumes at the post office resulted from an inefficient air-conditioning system and because the post office does not keep any windows open. He said the post office failed to inform him about the chemicals and should have provided him with a protective mask and goggles.

'Our Concern Is Safety'

Yamaguchi said the post office's air-conditioning system works properly, making it necessary to keep the windows closed. He added that Graham failed to follow instructions printed on the chemical containers. According to Yamaguchi, Graham was informed of the chemicals during training. He said the post office has not had any problems with the chemicals before Graham's complaints.

"Our concern is safety, and work is second," Yamaguchi said. "When we hear something is unsafe . . . if it means pulling chemicals or setting up new procedures, we do it."

Graham, however, said he followed instructions and denied that the Postal Service informed him of the potential dangers of the chemicals.

He said that he wasn't "told of the risks of the chemicals. I was never cautioned."

Graham said he has been placed on disability leave that has caused him financial hardship.

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