Officials say more time needed to examine state building sickness

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(Host) State Officials are developing plans in case they need to move workers out of the state office building in Bennington.

But they say they need to know more before they decide whether to do that. State and federal experts are investigating a high occurrence of asthma and a rare inflammatory disease among the building’s employees.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Sounds of traffic, honking and workers)

(Keese) A couple dozen state workers stood outside the office building on busy Route 7 Wednesday afternoon. They wore masks, or carried signs with messages like, Relocate the Workers Now.’

That’s what the Vermont State Employees Association wants the state to do. Doug Gibson is the union’s communications director.

(Gibson) “We’re out here today to reiterate the workers and VSEA’s call on the state to relocate the workers at the Bennington State Office Building until an all-clear is given at that building.”

(Keese) The building houses local offices of the Agency of Human Services, Probation and parole, Voc Rehab and district and family courts.

The health department has been studying it since June . That’s when managers became aware of six cases of sarcoidosis among current or former workers.

Acting Health commissioner Sharon Moffatt says that’s an unusually high number for one location. The rare inflammatory disease causes lumps of cells to build up on the lungs and other organs.

Moffatt says the causes are still being studied.

(Moffatt) “What scientists know to date is that your immune system is either responding to something either in the environment such as bacteria or viruses or chemicals, but it could also be responding to your own autoimmune system.”

(Keese) A Health department survey this summer also found higher-than normal incidences of asthma and respiratory complaints. Commissioner Moffatt.

(Moffatt) “When we got that preliminary data we called in the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety and asked them if they would be willing to come in and help us do more extensive medical testing.”

(Keese) The examinations were done this week. At least 100 of the buildings 135 employees volunteered to be tested. The building has also undergone extensive environmental tests.

Results of all the investigations are expected in about three weeks. Moffatt says without that information it’s impossible to know whether moving the workers will even address the problem.

Meanwhile the State Department of Buildings and General Services has been sizing up space needs, talking with property owners, and looking into rental trailers.

The commissioner of that department, Tasha Wallis, says her office is just making contingency plans. She says the health department will determine what’s next.

For Vermont public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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