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.”
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.
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.
Nonetheless, penta has been associated with several deaths throughout the world, most of them involving people who work directly with the chemical in lumber mills or other industries.
Also, numerous illnesses have been attributed to penta exposure. Symptoms can include profuse perspiration, high fever, weakness, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, headache, and intense thirst, and can result in progressive coma and even death.
As with many other chemicals, some people exhibit no ill effects even after being exposed to penta for prolonged periods. Others, however, can suffer an almost allergic response.
The chemical is widely used in the lumber industry to protect wood from termites and other pests. Penta can be applied by pressure impregnation, total immersion or with a brush.
Penta has also been commonly used on wooden produce crates. Because of that, the chemical has become a ubiquitous part of the food chain. The second most widely used pesticide in the United States, penta has been found in traces in more than 85% of the people studied in a national health and nutrition survey in the late 1970s.
EPA Tackles Penta Issue
There are no regulations in California outlawing the use of penta inside offices or homes, but a 1984 law prohibits the use of state money to pay for the purchase of wood playground equipment that has been treated with the chemical.
On the federal level, officials with the Environmental Protection Agency grappled over the penta issue for half a decade before adopting regulations in September, 1985, that ban over-the-counter sales to home consumers.
According to state documents, about 40% of the beams on the interior of the Long Beach building are impregnated with penta. The beams that were treated with the chemical are those that extend from outside the exterior walls to the inside, acting as major girders in the building’s framework.
Susan Hogg, a spokeswoman for the state Department of General Services, said she does not know why the Douglas fir beams treated with penta were used on the interior of the building.
Levin, however, speculated that the building’s designers were probably unaware that penta could pose a problem inside the structure. The situation could have been corrected during the design stage, Levin said, with “minor design modifications” to ensure that no beams were exposed on the building’s exterior and thus in need of treatment with penta.
State health officials learned the beams were “out-gassing” penta in 1982 during a test of the air a few months before various state agencies began moving into the building. To curb the problem the beams were coated with plastic urethane. Tests showed the fresh urethane coating reduced penta air emissions substantially, though they have slowly risen in the three years as the coating deteriorated.
Tests conducted by the state in 1983 on 37 employees showed that levels of penta in their urine increased from an average of less than 5 micrograms per liter to more than 50 micrograms after a month in the building. After nine weeks in the building, however, the average level had dropped to 30 micrograms per liter, probably because of several modifications made to the ventilation system, records indicate.
The tests were discontinued at that point because experts felt the levels of penta were within safe ranges. A dangerous level for penta in urine, Stratton said, is about 3,000 micrograms per liter.
“To the best of my knowledge, the levels of pentachlorophenol in the Long Beach building do not represent a hazardous situation for the occupants,” Stratton said.
But many employees in the building suspect otherwise. Beyond fears of cancer-causing dioxins, their chief concern is that they face a risk by being exposed to small amounts of penta on a daily basis over a long period of time.
“Nobody knows what the long-term effects are, but they still expect us to stay here,” said Richard Baker, operations supervisor for the Division of Oil and Gas. “This thing is like a nightmare. The more you read, the more you learn, the more you worry about it.”
Virtually No Research
Levin agreed, saying that virtually no research has been done on penta exposure over prolonged periods in settings such as the State Office Building in Long Beach.
“There have been no real studies of the long-term effects,” he said. “This building is the case study, unfortunately.”
Few of the agencies in the building have kept track of the illnesses of employees. Baker, however, has maintained a log of symptoms experienced by his employees. During the past 16 months, the two dozen workers in the Division of Oil and Gas have reported 281 scratchy throats and 226 headaches that they have attributed to exposure to penta in the building.
Others, such as Manuel, have suffered problems like small sores on the scalp or night sweats.
“In the wintertime, when it’s cold, my wife will wake me up because I’m sopping wet with sweat,” Manuel said. “I get headaches toward the end of the week. My throat itches. . . . I can go home and fall asleep real easy before dinner. That’s something I never used to do.”
Baker and others said their symptoms were most noticeable on hot days, when the building’s ventilation system is hard pressed to keep the temperature down. At times, the temperature in the building rises to near 90 degrees, Baker said. It is under such extreme conditions that penta is most apt to vaporize, according to experts.
Josie Hopfauf, an office assistant for the Department of Fish and Game, said she began to suffer headaches, nausea and lightheadedness during the first summer after the building opened.
“I thought I was coming down with something, so I went to the doctor and he said there appeared to be nothing wrong with me,” Hopfauf said. “I thought I was really losing my mind.”
When Hopfauf began hearing of other employees with similar complaints, she realized she was being affected by the building.
Jessie Cook, a counselor with the state Department of Rehabilitation, said she noticed the effects the first day she worked in the building. Cook began getting frequent headaches, something she had never been prone to suffering, even when ill. Her physician was unable to diagnose a cause for her headaches, she said.
“I’m sure it was the fumes,” said Cook.
After enduring the problem for several months, Cook finally requested and was granted a transfer to the department’s division office in North Long Beach. Her health has now improved. ‘All I know is that I was miserable and I got out,” she said.
Several workers, meanwhile, say the Department of General Services has not moved quickly enough.
“It seems like gross mismanagement of the whole thing,” Baker said. “There’s never been a coordinated effort.”
Despite such allegations, Hogg said, the Department of General Services has worked “as fast as possible” to cure the building’s woes.
“It isn’t just a situation where we could just go out and fix the building,” Hogg said, explaining how the department had to undertake the time-consuming task of requesting money from the Legislature to make changes. Those improvements should be completed by June.
Hogg said the Department of General Services began receiving complaints from employees in January, 1984, about a year after the building opened. Upon hearing of the problems, officials decided to increase the amount of fresh air being pumped into the building from 10% to 30%.
The new ventilation system, by improving the flow of air, will help to keep the temperature in the building down, reducing the chance that penta will vaporize, Hogg said.
Some Seek Further Measures
While employees are pleased by such steps, they want even more done.
H. Mattson Austin, labor relations consultant for the California Assn. of Professional Scientists, said his group--one of two employee associations that have filed grievances--wants the state to begin monitoring of a sample of building residents and to start testing for dioxins, something that has yet to occur.
Austin said the group also wants state officials to allow workers experiencing penta-related medical problems to move to other office sites whenever possible.
And if the problem cannot be cured, employees like Baker insist there remains just one logical thing to do.
“If they can’t fix it,” he said, “then they should bring in the bulldozers.”