Soon after the new Los Angeles Airport Courthouse opened in December, dozens of employees in the 10-story glass and steel structure reported such health problems as chronic headaches, rashes, fatigue, breathing difficulties and general malaise.
County officials, worried about the $107-million building, sent a team of environmental consultants to conduct a series of exhaustive chemical tests and one-on-one confidential interviews with employees.
After months of a study that cost $30,000, researchers last week concluded that the reported health problems were real and stemmed in part from leftover construction dust and the lingering smells of new paint, carpeting and furnishings.
But, compounding all that, the report concludes, was the psychological trauma that some judges, lawyers and other staffers felt in reluctantly leaving their offices at a decades-old, breezy beach-side courthouse in Santa Monica for the new high-rise on South La Cienega Boulevard with a view of the San Diego and Century freeways and of planes landing at Los Angeles International Airport.
Employees say the new quarters, in an industrial district less than a mile from an airport runway, are unwelcoming compared to the Santa Monica Courthouse, located a few blocks from the ocean, near the popular Third Street Promenade shopping district. Some reported discomfort with their new workstations and complained about inadequate ventilation, a lack of privacy in the more open floor plans, increased noise and sun glare on computer screens.
"I want to go back [to Santa Monica]," Deputy Dist. Atty. Lauren Weis, head of the airport courthouse office, said Friday. "I loved that building, even though it's funky, rickety and broken-down. At least you could open the windows and get fresh air. Here, it's sterile in comparison."
Environmental health consultants gave their draft report to county public works officials, who will review the findings for at least a month before deciding whether further action should be taken, Public Works Department spokeswoman Vanann Allen said. County officials didn't make public the draft report but discussed the findings in interviews last week.
"We're still looking at all the tests," Allen said.
Officials insist that they are taking the complaints seriously and have carefully avoided saying the causes are completely psychological. However, the early findings do suggest that the discontent with the building contributed to some symptoms.
The structure, with a green-tinted glass facade facing the airport and with a curved stone entrance, experienced a series of problems long before construction began.
Financial, planning and legal errors put the project four years behind schedule and nearly $40 million over budget.
Officials say that fewer than 60 people in a staff of more than 200 have complained about health or comfort issues. Employee health and comfort complaints first surfaced in December, peaked in February and have dropped off over the past few months, Allen said.
She credits the decrease to the completion in June of the building's cafeteria and register-recorder's office on the lower floors. Dust from those construction jobs may have caused some of the reported respiratory problems on upper floors, she said.
In the spring, Superior Court Judge Bernard Kamins told county staff that his breathing problems had increased since moving into the building, forcing him to use a portable air purifier at the bench in his seventh-floor courtroom, according to a county document. Other employees in the upper floors of the building shared his problems.
Air quality tests showed that carbon dioxide levels on the fifth, sixth and seventh floors did not exceed safety levels set by federal workplace guidelines, according to a March 31 memo from county environmental health and safety specialist Philip Ow to Superior Court Administrator Miriam Docter.
However, the memo says indoor air quality complaints in new buildings can occur because of odors from construction materials and new office furnishings.
Consequently, building maintenance workers increased the circulation of fresh air into the building. But the complaints continued.
Then, the county hired CTL Environmental Services, a Los Angeles firm with specialists in "sick building syndrome." The company was paid $30,000 to test for molds, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, formaldehyde, humidity levels and ozone, plus hundreds of airborne chemicals and volatile organic compounds. Results showed that there were no abnormal or dangerous amounts of any of those, Allen said.
She said employees told interviewers that the strong smell of varnish from newly manufactured bookshelves prompted nausea and headaches among staff for weeks.
"It's just miserable," said an employee on one of the top floors, who asked not to be identified. "I've never been this sick in my life."
Weis, who supervises a staff of about 60, said their fifth-floor offices offer no privacy.