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How sick is City Hall?
Municipal staffers think they’re working in a sick building; the mayor says it’s healthy, and for now, nobody’s talking

Airing grievances

Teacher complaints suggest more sick buildings

TWO PUBLIC HEARINGS on sick-building syndrome held in December and March may not have attracted many Boston City Hall employees, but they did manage to draw employees from the Boston Public Schools. Testimony by school staffers raises the possibility that facilities throughout the city, not just City Hall, could be making occupants ill.

On March 26, teachers and parents from the Richard J. Murphy Elementary School, in Dorchester, came before the city council’s public-health committee to complain that the 800-student school exhibited "many signs" of sick-building syndrome. Teacher Michael McLaughlin said he and his colleagues, some of whom showed up with posters that read PLEASE HELP US and CURE OUR SICK BUILDING, have documented such ailments as allergic reactions, eye irritations, and sinus infections. According to McLaughlin, more than 60 teachers at the Murphy School suffer from "unexplainable" health conditions. Meanwhile, one parent of a 10-year-old student testified that her son, who had transferred to the Murphy School last September, must transfer out because he’s recently developed what she calls "horrible" illnesses.

Ginny Lane, a veteran teacher from the Oliver H. Perry Elementary School, in South Boston, testified that in September 1998, she moved into a classroom located in the school’s northeast corner, which doesn’t get much sun. The room, she recalls, had a distinct mildew odor. It also had a recurring leak that often flooded the closet. Soon, Lane says, she had trouble breathing. She had back-to-back sinus infections. By the end of the year, she says, she started losing hair. "I would see hair on my clothes, the floor," she recalls. "I was shedding like a dog."

Lane asked to move to another room. But she wasn’t re-assigned for two more years — not until October 2000, after she’d presented school administrators with lab results from Environmental Health Associates, in Cambridge. Lane, determined to prove that mold was, in fact, a problem, had left a leather bag in the classroom’s closet. She took a swatch of the bag to the Boston Teachers Union, which sent it to the lab. Results showed that the bag had been covered with invisible aspergillus, a mold that can be toxic.

Lane moved into another classroom, directly above her old one, but things only got worse for her. During the 2001-’02 academic year, she developed respiratory problems and ear infections. She even coughed up blood. "When I took a breath," she says, "it felt like fiberglass shards." Eventually, after three long, painful years, Lane went out on sick leave, in February 2002. She is now applying for disability retirement.

Richard Stutman, of the Boston Teachers Union, helped Lane send the sample of her classroom bag to the Cambridge lab. He believes that Lane’s experience isn’t isolated. For years, he has received complaints from teachers about a host of illnesses. All have one thing in common, he says: "These people were healthy, then turned unhealthy."

In the past 10 years alone, Stutman has heard complaints about a wide range of middle- and high-school buildings in the city, including Madison Park Technical Vocational High, Charlestown High, South Boston High, English High, Grover Cleveland Middle, and Umana/Barnes Middle. Often, teachers bring Stutman samples taken from classrooms, just as Lane did — books, bags, and pieces of carpet — which he, in turn, sends to Environmental Health Associates. If results indicate mold, he says, "I use them to get the school department to remediate" by conducting tests and clean-ups.

Stutman, however, doesn’t believe the city administration takes the sick-building-syndrome issue very seriously. What this syndrome comes down to are tiny, invisible particles in the air that can affect some people worse than others. Says Stutman, "You cannot see the air, so why get bothered by poor air quality? That seems to be the administration’s attitude."

But for those who testified, too many people are complaining about the same or similar health ailments for it to be written off as coincidence. Stutman — and many other observers — hope the city-council hearings mark a new era, in which the powers that be actually address a long-standing issue. Concludes Stutman, "This is a widespread problem. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind."

— Kristen Lombardi

ALMOST ONE YEAR AGO, a furor swept through Boston City Hall. On April 24, 2001, more than 300 employees — roughly 30 percent of the building’s workforce — felt angry, frustrated, or worried enough to sign a petition charging that City Hall is a "sick trap" — a "toxic wasteland," rife with mold, bacteria, and other pollutants causing illnesses at a rate so startling that it cannot be chalked up to mere coincidence. The petition was circulated from department to department; its signers represented a broad base of employees from a number of agencies — including the Office of the Parking Clerk, Elderly Commission, Appeals Board, City Clerk, Boston Redevelopment Authority, and Retirement Board, to name a few — located throughout the municipal headquarters.

"Are you tired of working in a ‘SICK OFFICE’?" the petition began. It went on to blame the City Hall environment for causing dizziness, sore throats, lung infections, pneumonia, and even cancer. In a tone seething with anger, the petition declared that "the employees of City Hall refuse to cower any more" and "stand united in confronting" the increasingly apparent sick-building situation. It demanded that Mayor Thomas Menino and his administration respond, giving employees the "right to be included in the actions taken."

The appeal was delivered to Mayor Menino and the Boston City Council, where it managed to gain attention. On two occasions, councilors filed orders calling for public hearings so employees could voice concerns. Last December, some eight months after the petition surfaced, the council’s public-health committee convened its first hearing "to discuss concerns raised by employees about sick-building syndrome." Attendance proved scanty. "We didn’t have anyone from City Hall come," says City Councilor Mickey Roache, who chaired the health committee at the time. But Roache attributed the workers’ absence to the holidays; he filed a second order February 13, and another hearing was held on March 26. Again, the turnout was slim. Of the eight people who testified, only five were city employees. All but two worked for Boston Public Schools (see "Airing Grievances," page 22). After two hearings thus far, it appears that people, with just a few noteworthy exceptions, are afraid to speak out about this issue.

That virtually no one from City Hall has come forward to testify perplexes councilors, given that 300 people signed last spring's petition. City Councilor Chuck Turner, who sits on the health committee, admits he has been "awaiting testimony from City Hall employees." He adds, "It’s strange that people, by and large, didn’t respond."

Administration officials view the sudden quiet as par for the course, since, they contend, there isn’t a problem at City Hall. Basic City Services chief Michael Galvin, who oversees building maintenance for City Hall, defends the integrity of the structure, which was built in 1969. "This is not a sick building," he says. "If it were, I wouldn’t be here." Menino spokesperson Peter Nagle suggests the silence indicates satisfaction. "People are happy with the progress," he claims, referring to three city-funded environmental reports, all of which give the facility a clean bill of health. "That the city has undertaken three studies shows that it’s willing to address [employee] concerns."

Maybe so. But that’s not the impression you get from the few people who will discuss the issue. Privately, city employees and officials paint a picture of ongoing health complaints and structural issues. Today’s silence, they say, may mean many things. It may mean people didn’t know about the hearings. It may mean they doubt the council has the power to fix things. Or it may mean they’re afraid to criticize the Menino administration — particularly at a time of fiscal crisis, when budget cuts and job layoffs loom on the horizon. One City Hall insider even speculates that employees "just walked away from this issue" — not because their ailments abated, but because they "could be given a hard time" for blowing the whistle. The insider adds, "I can’t really blame employees. Who needs the grief?"

COUNCILOR ROACHE, now vice-chair of the city’s public-health committee, can’t quite shake his bewilderment over the silence at City Hall. Even before the petition circulated last April, Roache had received concerned visitors in his fifth-floor office. They came to him individually — past and current City Hall workers — often with folders full of medical documentation. Each was convinced that illnesses — running the gamut from sinusitis to nosebleeds to heart palpitations — can be linked to the municipal building.

"I thought the issue was important," Roache says. He set out to gather information and even conducted interviews with complaining staffers outside the City Hall building — so they’d feel comfortable. After several confidential meetings, Roache was convinced that "people have been sick for a long time, and their complaints have fallen on deaf ears." His suspicions were only confirmed by the April 2001 petition. But once the council took up the appeal, employees fell silent. "No one wants to talk now," Roache says.

Former city councilor Peggy Davis-Mullen puzzles over the conspicuous silence as well. Last spring, petitioners sought out the outspoken Davis-Mullen, who was then running against Menino in the 2001 mayoral elections. They urged her to tour City Hall. What she found there troubles her to this day. "Respiratory ailments, headaches, nausea," she recounts, ticking off a list of employee sicknesses. In the Parking Clerk office, workers agonized over the sky-high rate of cancer. Their counterparts in the Elderly Commission worried about nosebleeds. In nearly every division, Davis-Mullen claims, "People talked about symptoms." The tour inspired her to file the first order calling for hearings on sick-building syndrome. She adds, "There’s no way all these people could make this up" — or, for that matter, be cured.


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Issue Date: April 11 - 18, 2002
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