Las Vegas Sun

August 20, 2019

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Your building could be making you sick

You feel tired all the time, have a headache, itchy eyes and maybe a slight cough. You think allergies.

Think again.

The culprit could be the building where you work, or even your own home.

The term "Sick Building Syndrome" is rapidly being identified as a legitimate illness affecting thousands of people worldwide.

A World Health Organization committee report in the mid-1980s identified as many as 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings worldwide as having indoor air-quality problems.

In Las Vegas, the Grant Sawyer State Office Building, 555 E. Washington Ave., is the latest example of a structure gone haywire. Growth of the toxic fungi stachybotrys chartarum is suspected of causing office workers to become sick. It's a greenish-black fungus that tends to colonize on drywall, ceiling tiles and around leaky faucets. Most of the time, it's hidden behind walls or ceiling crawl spaces.

Investigators have been studying the building since 1996, when employees from 14 state agencies on several floors reported that they were routinely ill. At one point, the fungus was discovered growing on ceiling tiles and leaky hot water valves. The tiles were replaced and the valves sealed, which solved the problem for a while.

About a year ago, employees started getting sick again. Now, investigators are drilling holes in walls to try to find new fungal growth. Moisture triggers the growth, building inspectors say, and they've identified three spots where it may be entering the building: near the expansion joints, through exterior caulking and through grout on outside tiles.

"When you see stained ceiling tiles, it indicates fungi," said Thomas McManus, a Las Vegas industrial hygienist and an environmental health and safety consultant. "You must take care of water damage right away -- within 24 hours and no more than 48 hours. Drywall and ceiling tile are the fungi's delicacy."

If the leaks can be stopped, the fungus won't grow, said Ted Ice, environmental project manager for the state Public Works Board.

So far, fungus has been found only around some windowpanes in the Sawyer building. But Ice is sure investigators will find more leaks into the building.

Until they do, employees will feel the effects.

In the four months since she joined the Gaming Control Board, which occupies 40,000 square feet in the Sawyer building, Mari Tayama-Taylor has developed severe sinus problems.

"By Wednesday, I would be congested, and I had fluid in the back of my throat," Tayama-Taylor, 34, said. "Physically I had no other problems, just this discomfort."

Stephanie Bryant, 40, a clerical worker, noticed her asthma got worse when she started working at Gaming Control in January. By the end of the day, her eyes are burning, she has a headache and her chest is tight.

"You come out of here really fatigued," Bryant said. "At one point I was on six different kinds of medications. My ears were full of fluid, and my sinuses were swollen shut from irritation."

Twenty-five employees have filed claims with the State Industrial Insurance System since Gaming Control moved into the Sawyer building in April 1995, said Patrick Wynn, deputy chief of the investigations division of the Gaming Control Board. He also experiences headaches daily and occasionally nausea and sinus problems.

Grant Sawyer building is not the only commercial structure with problems in Las Vegas, said Dr. James Craner, a Reno internal medicine specialist who specializes in sick buildings.

Craner has investigated 10 buildings in Clark County over the last 1 1/2 years.

In fact, one state building, the former Employment Security office at Eighth and Carson, was so infected, that it was torn down. The structure was demolished in July 1998 after several of the 60 employees began complaining of respiratory problems.

Water was draining from the roof into the building, Ice said, and plumbing on the second floor was leaking badly. Mold was growing on ceilings and down several walls.

The state realized it would be too costly to repair, so employees were moved to an office in North Las Vegas. Ironically, fungus was found on that structure's inside walls, but it was reparable.

Craner has also found problems in 15 homes. He says many family physicians mistake reactions to building problems as bronchitis and wrongly prescribe antibiotics.

"A lot of the problem is that we have older buildings in the Las Vegas Valley with flat roofs," said Dr. Linda Stetzenback, a microbiologist at UNLV who frequently consults with Craner. "Water can pond and seep down through the walls."

Also, since in Southern Nevada when it rains it floods, many homes experience leaking under doors, which can lead to carpets and walls becoming saturated. That creates an ideal condition for fungal growth.

Besides the Sawyer building, Stetzenback said she has been called in to give advice on renovating 23 schools in the Clark County School District that experienced water damage. All, she said, have been repaired and pose no danger to students.

Fungus is not the only culprit, said Ice. Investigators found the Desert Research Institute building, 755 E. Flamingo Road., was "negatively pressurized."

Exhaust fans were pushing too much air out of the building, creating a vacuum effect inside the building. As a result, large amounts of dust were being drawn in, making people sick.

Ice said the problem was solved by turning off some of the fans, re-balancing the building's air pressure. It turns out it's not an uncommon problem.

"The new guidelines from the American Society of Healthy Refrigeration and Air Conditioning recommends that this should be done every five years," Ice said.

The problem with indoor air quality may be traced to more energy-efficient buildings.

In the first half of the century, about 15 cubic feet per minute of outside air was pumped into each building for each occupant, the federal Environmental Protection Agency reports. After the 1973 oil embargo, that was reduced to 5 cubic feet per minute per occupant.

A lack of fresh air and the recirculating of indoor air has contributed to the sick-building phenomenon, EPA experts believe.