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Toxic Mold Plagues Visalia Courthouse

Health: Public services are curtailed because so many workers are calling in sick. County's air-monitoring program has done little to allay fears.

August 06, 2000|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VISALIA, Calif. — In the coffee bars and restaurants in this small central San Joaquin Valley town, people are talking about The Mold That Ate The Courthouse.

But for the people who work in the three-story building downtown, the discovery of toxic mold above a judge's chambers is no laughing matter. More than 150 courthouse workers, among them three judges, have filed claims against Tulare County, claiming injuries caused by hazardous working conditions.

More than a third of the court staff is out sick. Services to the public are being curtailed. There are so few clerks that judges are left fuming in their robes. Criminal cases have been moved to other county courthouses.

"We don't have enough court clerks or people processing paperwork," said Superior Court Judge Paul Vortmann. "It's a substantial problem, and it may get worse before it gets better."

The mold is a toxic variety known as Stachybotrys, which can cause allergic reactions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A softball-sized clump of the gelatinous, greenish-black mold was discovered months ago above the chambers of a Superior Court judge who is now sick.

Attorneys for the sick employees accuse the county of trying to cover up the seriousness of the problem. County officials deny that and say they are doing everything they can to ensure employees' safety.

County spokesman Eric Coyne said work crews have done as many as 73 air tests in a single day. When one test detected a single mold spore--250,000 can fit on the head of a pin--in Vortmann's chambers, the room was sealed.

"We've gone overboard" in trying to ensure safety, Coyne said. "We've been told the building is safe."

That leaves the county facing a quandary: If the building is safe, why are so many people calling in sick?

San Fernando Valley attorney Alex Robertson, who specializes in mold cases and is representing many of the sick courthouse employees, said some of his clients have developed serious lung disease.

Robertson said courthouses from Florida to Northern California have been closed because of mold. So far, there are no plans to abandon the sprawling, three-story building here, but those still on the job say they can't go on indefinitely the way things are.

"We are working in a crisis situation," said Cynthia Logan, the deputy court executive officer.

The Visalia courthouse was built in 1957, but the windows have not sealed correctly since it was remodeled in the late 1980s, Coyne said. When it rains, water seeps in, creating the perfect conditions for the growth of all types of mold. At some point, the mold started growing above the chambers of Judge Elisabeth Krant.

Originally from the San Fernando Valley, Krant moved to the San Joaquin Valley with her family in 1991 and was elected to the bench in the small agricultural town of Exeter four years later. About 18 months ago, Krant started suffering from unexplained rashes and respiratory problems, according to attorney Steven Williams, who is representing the judge with Robertson.

At first, her condition didn't seem particularly unusual for the San Joaquin Valley, Williams said. "We've got bad air. A lot of people attribute health problems to that."

But Krant's condition worsened. Williams said she began asking the county about air tests in the courthouse and was told tests had turned up the presence of mold, but nothing harmful. Only later, Williams said, did the judge discover that the mass of Stachybotrys had been found above her own chambers. It was removed.

Since then, workers searching ceilings and ducts have found other mold masses. On Friday, they pulled up carpeting where mold was growing, Coyne said.

Williams insists that the mold is poisonous and carcinogenic. The CDC said common health effects include allergic symptoms similar to hay fever. The agency also said there are "very few" case reports suggesting a link between toxic molds and more significant health problems, such as pulmonary hemorrhaging and memory loss, but a "causal link between the presence of the toxic mold and these conditions has not been proven."

Krant went on leave in February and later sued the county after medical tests revealed the presence of the mold's toxin in her bloodstream, Williams said. Since then, other workers have been tested. Williams said those working in the clerk's office are coming back with results indicating high levels of the toxin in their systems.

In recent months, the fear, if not the mold, has spread throughout the courthouse. Judge Vortmann said of Krant: "She is sick. It remains to be seen why."

Vortmann said part of the problem is a distrust among the work force of the county's management and its assurances that things are fine. To resolve the problem, the judges have asked for an independent investigation by the state attorney general's office, which has agreed. An industrial hygienist has been hired.

"It's very important to get to the bottom of this," Vortmann said.

In the meantime, the county is fixing the leaky windows.

As for Krant, Williams said, "She's feeling a lot better. She isn't 100% by any stretch of the imagination."

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