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Toxic chemical found under O.C. building

A toxic chemical used in dry cleaning and for degreasing equipment has been found underneath an Orange County building that is already the subject of two lawsuits, officials said Monday.

Over the weekend, soil testing was conducted at the two-story office building that houses more than 550 county workers, including employees of the Orange County Social Services Agency and the Sheriff's Department. The testing, paid for by the county, was seen as a step forward in a years-long legal fight that includes former workers who say their time in the building caused birth defects, autoimmune diseases and cancer.

Tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene or perc for short, was detected in an area of soil at 5 feet and 10 feet underground. At 10 feet, the level of the chemical's presence exceeded the California Human Health Screening Levels, said TerryLynn Fisher, public information officer for the Social Services Agency.

The county will conduct additional testing to determine the cause of the elevated level of perc. In addition, a separate method of testing preferred by the plaintiffs will be conducted in mid-March.

About 70 employees who handle county adoptions and work directly above or near the area being examined had been scheduled to relocate to allow for the March test. Now that move could occur as soon as this week.

Perc is part of a family of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, which can be harmful to a person's health. According to a fact sheet from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, breathing it over long periods of time can cause liver and kidney damage in humans. Exposure to large amounts has been known to cause cancer in humans.

Sarah Kirk, 39, one of the plaintiffs, quit the Social Service Agency last summer after 11 years and is still angry.

"I just no longer had faith that they would act in my best interests and my co-workers' best interests," she said.

She also remembers feeling puzzled over the poor health of her son, who was born in 2002. He suffers from numerous health issues, including neurological defects, epilepsy and total body cerebral palsy. He cannot see, hear, speak or feed himself and is in his wheelchair for most of the day. He requires one-on-one supervision at all times. But Kirk said she was careful during her first pregnancy.

"I did everything right," she said. "I ate right. I took care of myself."

On Monday, workers were informed about the preliminary soil test results in a town hall-style meeting, Fisher said.

"This is just a guideline to say that further testing is needed," she said.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the land was used as a site to manufacture oil drilling equipment. Then came the office building, which the Social Services Agency moved into in 1993. Inside, gray carpet and cubicles dominate offices. An area on the first floor referred to as the red room — because of formerly red partitions — has been the focus of the complaints. Last Friday, the so-called red room had been cleared out, leaving six cubicles with gray partitions empty.

Scrutiny began in October 2009, when employees complained of a stale odor. The county brought in an industrial hygienist to perform tests. In August 2011, an air quality test was performed.

In a 2011 letter, Michael Riley, director of the Social Services Agency, reiterated that the county would be the first to take "corrective action" if the building wasn't safe.

"Please know that we would never, ever allow any of our staff to work in any situation that could be detrimental to their health," Riley wrote.

The county maintains that the entire building, including the red room, is safe to occupy, but Luisa Fernandez-Vasquez, 57, said she suspects otherwise.

Fernandez-Vasquez was a senior social worker for 28 years. She worked in a room adjacent to the red room.

She said she had always been in good health until she began suffering severe migraines. In 2005, a blood test came back abnormal. She was then diagnosed with a rare bone cancer called multiple myeloma.

The first question her doctor asked was if she had ever worked around toxic chemicals.

She replied, "No, I'm a social worker."

But in the fall of 2011, she learned of the site's former usage and she said it was then that it "clicked." Though she said she never missed work because of her illness, she retired early because of her concerns. She said she is glad the county has begun testing.

"I think it should have been done a long time ago," said Fernandez-Vasquez, who is named in a lawsuit against the former owners of the land. "Nothing is going to give me my health back."

On Monday evening, the Orange County Employees Assn. sent a letter to Riley urging him to close the building in light of the heightened chemical levels.

For Kirk, suspicion remains. After giving birth to her son, she was moved to a different location but continued to work part time with the county. In 2005, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

"I decided to speak out because I am willing to do anything and everything I can to ensure the health and safety of those who are there," she said. "And to get some answers."

A court hearing is set for April in the matter.

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