Tests confirm respiratory problems in workers at building

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(Host) Workers at the State Office Building in Bennington heard more evidence Thursday that their work place could be bad for their health.

A high incidence of respiratory problems and cases of a rare disease has not only the workers, but state and federal officials, concerned.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) The findings presented Thursday are the results of voluntary screenings done by federal health officials this fall. Scott Laney is a representative from the Centers for Disease Control. He told the Bennington workers that the tests confirm unusually high rates of asthma and related problems.

(Laney) “So no matter how you look at it there is an excess burden of illness in this building. Probably in the range of 20 to 30% of the people are affected with a respiratory illness.”

(Keese) The building has 135 employees and lots of traffic. It houses the Bennington district and family courts, probation and parole, voc rehab and human services.

Concerns arose last spring when it emerged that six current and past employees had been diagnosed with sarcoidosis. That’s a rare inflammatory disease that attacks the organs and can be fatal.

The incidence in the Bennington building is eight to ten times higher than in the overall population. No one knows what causes sarcoidosis.

Dr. Cort Lohff is the state epidemiologist.

(Lohff) Our investigation so far has really narrowed things down to the building. What in the building, if anything could be contributing to these health effects we just don’t know yet.

(Keese) The state has already hired a contractor to study the building. But first the employees have to be moved. Contractors are in the process of putting up modular office spaces on the state building grounds.

Gretchen Naylor is with the Vermont State Employees Association, the employees’ union. She says the move isn’t happening fast enough.

(Naylor) We want to see people removed from this unhealthy situation immediately. If this building had burned down, if there had been a fire or an explosion, the state would have found a way to remove them immediately and put them in a place where they could provide their services in a safe and friendly location.”

(Keese) Workers in the department of corrections could move in a few weeks. Officials say the courts will take longer.

For Vermont Public radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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