Sick Building Syndrome

In the early 1970s, Vice President Spiro Agnew brokered a deal to headquarter a federal agency in an office building at Waterside Mall in Washington, D.C. Employees soon began to suffer from various illnesses and, in 1997, nineteen employees finally filed suit against the building managers for $40 million, claiming that they received permanent brain damage from breathing the air there.

The agency in question? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- the very organization entrusted to safeguard the public from environmental illnesses. "It wasn't the Missouri dioxin case that poisoned me," said one plaintif (whose measures to ward off illness included requiring visitors to shower with special soap and change into sterilized clothes which she kept in her refrigerator). "It was my own six-by-eight-foot cubicle!"

[The EPA protested its innocence -- despite having used outdoor paint indoors, tarred the roof during office hours, routed rainwater into the ventilation system (where it sprouted fungus which then circulated throughout the building) and installed miles of resin-filled carpeting which never completely cured -- samples of which, in independent laboratory tests, killed mice after three hours of exposure. At the time, the EPA estimated that as many as 35 percent of American office workers suffer from "building-related illness" (sick building syndrome), costing the American economy $10 billion a year.]

[In 1974, a British Health and Safety Executive was set up to enforce safety standards in the workplace. In 1987, staff in the Executive's Notting Hill office went on strike -- because their headquarters were unsafe. "This place," union spokesman Don Street declared, "is a death trap." (During the subsequent renovations, scaffolding fell through a glass roof and crashed on to a clerk's desk.)]

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