|Many of us get sick by ourselves, have no one to talk to. This is a story about 6 office workers (3 now unable to work) and some of their struggle to get appropriate medical care, their struggle to get Workers Compensation and the statements of two so called experts that admit they don't know how to diagnose MCS.|
|Sick Buildings: Finding Proof|
|Our sincere appreciation to WRAL- TV and Stuart Watson. Excellence in Journalism Must include investigation and reporting all sides of the story.|
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.
Frances Huffman calls her horses her babies.
She loves to show them, but these days she says she can't.
Frances says the Moore County Community Services Building where she used to work made her sick.
Now when she grooms her horses, she says she can barely breathe.
"When all this stuff started happening, we didn't put it off to the building," Huffman said. "We just thought it was us."
At least five of her co-workers say the same thing.
"The only thing we had in common was that building," says Dawn Kidd.
In the Beginning...
Carthage, N.C., is a town of 900 or so people. The controversy over the building has split the community, and the employees are fighting people they grew up with and worked alongside.
"I've known some of those people all of my life," says Moore County commissioner Mike Holden, pictured at right. "I don't want to hurt anybody."
At the same time, the chairman of the county commission doesn't buy that the building made them sick. "Do I believe they're sick? I believe they're sick," Holden says.
Asked if he believes their sickness came from that building, Holden says, "I have no reason to believe their sickness came from that building."
County Manager David McNeill has raised suspicions, noting "one employee said she hoped her illness was related to the building."
"I'm not going to say conclusively something I can't say just so they get money," Holden says.
Six employees have filed claims for workers' compensation. All have had their claims rejected.
When asked if the claims were the prelude to a multimillion dollar civil suit, the employees said no emphatically.
Howard Bunn is the chairman of the state Industrial Commission, which hears workers' compensation cases.
Bunn says that employees who ask the commission for a hearing can expect a fight.
"You can expect that you're going to get a great deal of opposition from the other side of the picture," he said.
Proving the building made them sick is a tall order. Repeated tests of the building turned up no significant levels of pollutants. Yet the county closed the building just the same.
"We're not saying the dollar is more important than these people," said Holden, the Moore County commission chairman. "We're not saying that. But we do have a responsibility to the people of Moore County."
Frances Huffman has quit the county and moved on to another job. She says she doesn't want money - she wants to get better.
"Money don't mean that much to me," Huffman said. "My husband works to make money, and I've always worked to make money. I want my health back. That's all I want."
The bigger picture...
This is not just a story about six people in Carthage, N.C.
The controversy over whether low doses of chemicals can make some people sick has set off a raging medical debate. At stake are billions of dollars for employers, the government and industry and the health of millions of Americans.
Most weekday afternoons, Sharon Scott would be at work at for Moore County. "I want to work," Scott says. "I've always worked." But these days Sharon's desk sits empty. And Sharon is at home under a doctor's orders.
"Next week will be the first time I have ever been without a paycheck since I got out of college."
Sharon suffers from so-called multiple chemical sensitivity, or MCS - an allergy to everyday chemicals such as cleansers, perfumes and pesticides. She says she first got sick when she worked in the community services building. So did five of her co-workers, but county administrators don't think the building caused the illness.
"I have heard it said that we were sympathizing with one another," said former employee Frances Huffman.
Moore County Manager David McNeill says workers would get together and compare notes on their symptoms. "One employee or two employees would know pretty much how the others were feeling," he said.
Some of the employees say co-workers didn't take symptoms seriously until men complained.
Frankie McCaskill worked as the Moore County planner until she took disability because of her illness. "We were too busy to go from department to department and say, 'Are you going to be sick today?' We didn't realize how sick the others were."
The bigger picture...
This might sound like a small town squabble confined to Carthage, N.C. But it's not.
It's part of a huge medical debate in which doctors line up on one side or the other.
|Dr. Howard Kehrl is a researcher with the EPA's health effects lab in Chapel Hill, where he studies multiple chemical sensitivity. "There's a lot of money involved, a lot of politics involved, legal issues," Kehrl said. Dr. Kehrl says MCS patients do learn some of their symptoms from others. "I'm sure it plays a role," he said. "It plays a role in sick building syndrome."|
|Jerry Tulis, who lectures on MCS at Duke University, says it's hard to tell whether MCS stems from the environment or from the patient's mind. "Some of that is real and some of it is perceived," Tulis said, "but to determine which is which is literally impossible because they both suffer symptoms."|
|Dr. Bill Meggs is an allergist at Eastern Carolina
University Medical School. He sums up the medical
establishment's view on MCS in two blunt statements.
"The patients who have these complaints are crazy and any doctor who sanctions their illness are quacks," He knows the line and he doesn't buy it, Meggs said.
"The patients are accused of faking their symptoms for secondary gain sometimes," Meggs said. "At the same time it seems that other bodies may have some other gain from denying this illness."
The stakes stretch far beyond Moore County because if small amounts of household chemicals make some people sick, that has implications for the makers of perfume, chemicals, carpet, paints and tobacco -- not to mention employers and taxpayers.
"A a major concern of the MCS community is medical illness recognition," Kehrl said. "And everything that comes with that -- disability payments, toxic, tort, special accommodations."
But people like Frankie McCaskill have more modest interests.
"I've got five beautiful grandchildren," she says. "I can't keep them no more."
The conventional medical wisdom tells people like Frankie that their symptoms are "all in their head." But some researchers believe what we put into our homes and workplaces is coming back to haunt us.
"Forty years ago people didn't use chemicals like they do now," says Sharon Scott. "Even when people cleaned they used old-fashioned ways of cleaning. Now the whole world is made up of using chemicals. People are going to continue getting sick."
|On behalf of all chemically injured in North Carolina
we greatly appreciate the work of WRAL-TV, Channel 5,
Raleigh, NC. This is Excellence in Investigative
Journalism. A Story is not complete unless both sides of
the story is told. Stuart Watson and the WRAL-TV News
crew traveled many miles to get the complete story.
We also appreciate WRAL-TV allowing us to pass this story on to you.
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Last updated on February 24,
1997 at 12:17 PM
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