- THE MAGAZINE
Last year, Jerry and two co-workers from the Banking, Insurance, Securities and Health Care Administration were diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivity. According to Jerry, the diagnosis means exposure to certain chemicals, even in small quantities, can trigger symptoms including nausea, burning eyes and throat, and headaches. And the cause, she says, was a new carpet laid in the Banking, Insurance, Securities and Health Care Administration offices last September.
"I'm glad that (the bill) is moving along," Jerry said. "We're really concerned that if this happened to us, it could happen to other people. If I save one person from this diagnosis, then it's worth it for me to speak out."
The legislation is the Chemical Sensitivities in State Buildings bill, which the House passed last week. It ensures that policies regarding indoor air quality won't be overlooked and that the Department of Buildings and General Services will investigate whether carpets should be used in state buildings in the future.
"I think it's important legislation," said Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, the sponsor. "Certainly to the employees who were infected it's important. I think we need to give them the tools to take care give them the tools to take care of their health."
Last September, the offices in Montpelier's City Center building were given an upgrade when new carpets were installed. Within hours of returning to work, though, some employees began complaining of dizziness, headaches and other symptoms.
"I went back into my office on Thursday, Sept. 30, and within an hour I began developing symptoms," said Jerry, a policy analyst in the Health Care Division. "It's so extreme that you can't imagine it could happen."
According to Jerry, shortly after returning to her office that day, she began to suffer from a dull headache, sinus pain and burning sensations in her eyes and lungs. The following day, the symptoms came back immediately, and she and two co-workers were moved to another area of the building. But that didn't help; the space had been carpeted 14 days earlier, and the new carpet smell - made up of volatile organic compounds - continued to linger.
Linda Kemp, an administrative assistant in the Health Care Division, also suffered from similar symptoms upon returning to work. However, while Jerry had no history of chemical sensitivities, Kemp had been diagnosed with "multiple chemical sensitivity" seven years earlier, so she knew what was happening when she arrived at work.
"I could smell something from the minute I walked in that building," Kemp said. "It felt like I swallowed bleach or something."
But for Kemp, the situation didn't come out of the blue. Months before the carpet installation took place, her supervisors brought around a sample book of carpet swatches.
At that point, she knew the carpets would be a problem for her because the samples themselves had brought on symptoms. She said she informed her supervisors of the situation and was told they would accommodate her. Kemp said she feels people just don't understand the severity of the condition or the toxic nature of volatile organic compounds.
"People don't understand what happens to people who are sensitive, because you can't see" airborne chemicals, Kemp said. "If it were like a black goop, maybe it would be different."
According to Vermont state toxicologist Bill Bress, for a small subset of the population the chemicals that emanate from new carpets and carpet adhesives can be a real problem. Bress said once a person develops a sensitivity to a particular chemical, exposure to even a small amount of it can cause symptoms. Bress said the solution is simply staying away from those chemicals. He didn't say how serious long-term exposure to the compounds could be, but the Department of Health's Web site states that studies with animals have shown that long-term exposure to some can increase the risk of developing cancer.
Finding out exactly what chemicals are in the carpets and glues has been a problem, Jerry said. Policies at the Department of Buildings and General Services state that before carpets and other floor coverings are installed in state offices, material and safety data sheets must be posted on at least one bulletin board per floor in the affected building. The sheets, which Jerry said were not posted, list the chemical composition of the carpets and glues. Jerry said it took about five months for the Department of Buildings and General Services to acquire the information from the carpet manufacturer.
As Jerry began investigating carpets and state policies regarding indoor air quality, she found that another Department of Buildings and General Services policy had been overlooked as well. The second policy, the Indoor Air Quality Complaint Response Protocol, states exactly what steps must be taken by managers when an employee makes a complaint. The policy also requires the Department of Buildings and General Services to "... ensure wide dissemination of this policy by periodically revising and distributing the Indoor Air Quality informational brochure."
Neither part of the policy, Jerry said, had been followed.
"What's been very disturbing is that there were some policies in place ... to protect the health and safety of workers in state owned and leased buildings, but they were not fully enforced," Jerry said.
In testimony before the House Committee on Institutions earlier this year, John Crowley, commissioner of banking and insurance, said he wasn't aware of the complaint protocol policy.
And Anne Noonan, director of the Vermont State Employees Association, said the complaint policy was simply not followed. Noonan said she had never heard of the issue until the employees informed her of the problem.
"It (policy 0008) says Buildings and General Services' Indoor Air Quality officer shall communicate development with the Vermont State Employees Association," Noonan said. "That has never happened to this date. All of the information I've heard is through the two employees themselves."
Crowley declined to comment on the carpet issue last week.
Tasha Wallis, commissioner of buildings and general services, said in a telephone interview that the problems in the Banking and Insurance case have arisen due to "communications issues" and that in most cases, the system for dealing with indoor air quality complaints "works very well." According to Wallis, within a few weeks of hearing of the complaints, air quality testing was completed in the office space, and the results didn't conclusively show the carpets to be the problem.
"All of the concentration levels were below OSHA permissible exposure limits," Wallis said. "We at this point don't have a clear understanding or proof that it was the carpeting."
And because that proof doesn't exist, Wallis said in her testimony, Jerry's worker compensation claim, which would cover her doctor's bills, was subsequently denied. Currently, worker compensation claims are filed with Risk Management, a division of the Department of Buildings and General Services.
"In the worker compensation system, there are very clear rules about what you can approve and what you can't approve," Wallis said before the House committee. Due to uncertainties surrounding the carpeting in Jerry's office, Wallis said, the claim was denied.
Jerry said the system seems flawed. She says she wants to know how her claim can be processed fairly when Risk Management is part of the Department of Buildings and General Services, the department that has already concluded the carpets weren't the cause of her diagnosis. Jerry is currently in the process of appealing the decision on her worker compensation claim.
Some legislators, though, said the results of the air quality tests don't matter as much as the fact that three employees became ill within hours of returning to work after the carpet had been installed.
"People have to take the fact that people get sick from these compounds as reality. It's real," said bill co-sponsor Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier. "The toxic effects on people in the workplace have been substantiated for years."
Wallis said her department is working to more fully implement the policies at this point. She said over the course of the summer, managers and commissioners in all state offices will be made aware of the policies and the information will be posted on the state's human resources Web site.
"We're trying to be helpful and responsive to the employees and to everybody else," Wallis said.
If the chemical sensitivities bill is passed into law when the Senate takes up the issue next year, it will ensure the policies aren't ignored, Klein said.
"It's one thing to have it as a policy, it's another to have it in statute," Klein said.
For Kemp and Jerry, the diagnosis has meant significant lifestyle changes. Both women have been working from home for the past eight months and have had to be careful about where they go. According to Kemp, she can't walk by the bicycle section in Wal-Mart without have a reaction. Jerry said she can't ride in new cars or visit tire or furniture stores. Both women feel the legislation is a step in the right direction.
"We need it. I think the protocols that are in place aren't working," Kemp said. "We just want to get back to work and make sure that it doesn't happen to other people."