WRAL Investigates

WRAL-TV Investigates: Sick Buildings - Finding Proof

Posted February 26, 1996 7:48 p.m. EST
Updated February 24, 2009 2:21 p.m. EST

— A growing number of Americans are finding that everyday chemicals make them sick. Chemicals such as perfumes, cleansers and pesticides. While they don't bother most of us, the chemicals cause extreme allergic reactions in some people. WRAL Investigative Reporter Stuart Watson examines what happens to workers who complain their workplace made them sick.

The history of on-the-job illness is full of examples of what happens to the first group of people who complain their workplace makes them sick. They're told to prove it. Makes no difference if it's asbestos or agent orange. But as a group of North Carolina workers are finding, "proving it" is no easy task.

The Moore County Community Services Center looks like a perfectly good office building. It used to be an electronics plant. But look inside now and you'll find it's empty. That's because many of the employees who worked here got sick. And when their sickness persisted, the county closed the building.

Frankie McCaskill is a former employee.

"It's the most humiliating and embarrassing nightmare I've ever been through in my life."

McCaskill and at least five of her co-workers suffer from something called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome, a series of unexplained allergies. Sharon Scott is one of those people. But now she's affected by what's outside that office building as well.

"I'm sensitive to any kind of chemicals, cleaning products, perfumes. Whenever I go to church, I come home sick. If I go shopping, I come home sick."

The workers' symptoms vary from shortness of breath to chronic fatigue to unexplained swelling.

The county employees trace their symptoms to the building. There's just one problem: proving it.

David McNeill is the Moore County manager.

"I believe each of them have different problems as they've expressed them to me. I have no evidence at this time to show the building was the cause of any of those problems."

When employees first complained about the building in June 1994, the county tried to fix the problem. They moved everyone out, vented fresh air into the building and replaced windows, carpet and ceiling tiles.

"I think we genuinely tried to follow up and see if there were any problems with it environmentally."

But employees say the county should have tested the site before cleaning it. Only after the building was aired out did State Epidemiologist Bill Pate test the air.

"I did not identify one specific thing that I thought was responsible for the symptoms."

But employees continued to have symptoms. Dawn Kidd says the tests should have been done before the cleanup.

"I begged them to please, before they took that carpet and everything that was in the ceiling... to please test and he would not test it."

Sam Fields supervises the county's Environmental Health Section.

"People in the building wanted us to test for everything that was possibly in this world and every combination thereof."

The county cleaned up one more mess without testing it either: an abandoned septic tank from the former electronics plant. Leach lines from the tank ran under the community services building.

But the state and county dismissed the tank as a potential cause of the illness. Bill Pate says he didn't see a way that contaminants from a septic tank could get into the building.

So the county had the septic tanks pumped and the waste dumped in drying beds at the wastewater treatment plant, without ever testing it.

The county's own consultant, Accurex Environmental, later concluded "there is a high probability that the contaminants associated with the septic system may have infiltrated into the building." But that report wasn't enough to satisfy former employee Roger Kennedy.

"Had they been done before everything was removed, repainted, recovered, resurfaced and the septic tanks pumped out the reports would have been entirely different."

Sam Fields, of the Moore County Health Department, says there's been no attempt to cover up anything. So what were those so-called contaminants in the septic tank? Nobody knows. But Betty Hooker says she has an idea.

Betty worked for Ren Electronics, the former owner of the building. She says the company used chemical solvents to clean the cables it manufactured for the computer industry. Those solvents were supposed to be disposed of properly in barrels.

Betty Hooker: "...But a lot of times that didn't happen. They were just thrown out that door over there.""

Stuart Watson: "Are we talking about a lot of solvent?"

Hooker: "We're talking about a lot. A lot. "

When the State Hazardous Waste Section tested under the septic tank for chemicals, it found none. But the county isn't taking any chances. It closed the building.

But paying the employees who have applied for worker's compensation for their sickness, that's another story.