Marilyn’s Story About a Classic Sick Building


This powerful story appears in my 1999 book Casualties of Progress: Personal Histories from the Chemically Sensitive. It is twenty years since Marilyn and her friend sat in my living room and told me what had happened to them in their workplace, and upon rereading her account, I am once again appalled by the way that a government agency was so callous about the health of its workers that Marilyn’s life was forever diminished. Accounts like this raise deep concerns over the current administration’s rush to eliminate large numbers of regulations because many of these regulations help protect workers from exposure to toxic chemicals.


In 1994, my co-workers and I were working in a state office building where we were inadvertently exposed for seven months to an unvented printing press. The printing press exposure involved solvents like 1,1,1-trichloroethane. Then throughout the fall and early winter, pesticides were also sprayed around our desks as we worked. The applicators sprayed the pesticides during our breaks and while we were eating lunch at our desks, as at that time we had no designated break room. The instructions for the use of the particular pesticide that was sprayed clearly state: “Do not remain in treated area and ventilate the area after treatment is completed. . . . Do not contaminate water, food, or foodstuffs.” The clincher was that the building, which was already saddled with a history of air quality problems, did not have an operable ventilation system. I would compare the situation with running a car in a garage without the door open. According to statements made by the architects during a meeting in January 1995: “The ventilation system of the entire building was on recirculation mode. This resulted in all irritants in the facility being effectively sealed within the building.” Were we lucky or what?

In our area alone there were twenty people who complained about symptoms at work after the printing press was installed, and seven of us ended up with what would appear to be a lifetime disability from the exposure. My friend Jeanne and I sat directly over the printing press, which was located on the floor below us, and we are two of the people most affected by the exposure.

When I was hired in July 1992 at age 43 by the state government department where I still work, I was an extremely healthy person. I saw a doctor yearly for those fun paps and breast exams that I had to drag myself to and that’s about it. Then in October 1992, I had the first sinus infection of my life, and I also began to have a lot of fatigue symptoms simultaneously with chronic sinus problems. I jokingly said, “I’m getting old” to other colleagues I worked with, but some people said that I was just joining the rest of the building. I heard many people say that they had had constant bouts of bronchitis, pneumonia, and worsening asthma since working in the building, but at that time, I disregarded my symptoms, thinking they were just medical problems that were unrelated to my workplace environment. We didn’t know at the time that the building ventilation system was on recycle.

During July 1994 when the printing press was installed, my friend Jeanne began to break out in a terrible rash. As a child she had been diagnosed with eczema, but she had had no outbreak for twenty-five years. Now she became covered with this skin eruption and was seriously affected by it. The eczema began on July 12 that summer. (We later learned that they began running the new printing press on that day.) From that day on until the present, she has had to see specialists regularly for this condition. Her whole body was affected, but in particular we saw her face break out, turn purple, and peel in great sheets. It was repulsive, and she felt terrible, but we all loved her anyway. Jeanne went through the summer and into the fall like this, and the eczema got even worse.

In mid-October, when it was beginning to get cold, they shut the windows in the building. I began to have bouts of shortness of breath and needed to leave the building to get enough breath, although I had no history of asthma or allergies. I had never before had a rash in my life, but all of a sudden my face was bright red and burning every day. My eyes would itch, and I had a skin rash across my chest and up my arms. It would go away when I left the building and begin again when I went back in. Polyps began erupting on my face, and my mouth would begin to tingle and then burn. My lips would go to sleep and sometimes swell a little when I was in the building. My tongue and airways burned. There were times when I was not able to concentrate and I would slur my words, my tongue feeling too big for my mouth. At night I had muscle cramps that were alarmingly strong. I began to keep a daily account of the symptoms because I was aware that something was happening, but I had no idea what. My family began to worry, and rightfully so. It was not Mom as usual.

My symptoms became worse toward winter, and by mid-December 1994, many of my co-workers also were noticing that they didn’t feel well in the building and felt much better on weekends or even just when they went outside into the fresh air on a break. People began to talk to one another about the way they were feeling, no one understanding what the exact cause was, but all understanding that it was connected with being at work. 

Then one day our director noted a foul odor. He called the head of building operations, who promptly appeared, and he could smell it too. After that, an environmental health firm was called in to investigate. An architectural firm was also called in, and industrial hygienists were eventually hired to do air quality tests. The consultant from the environmental health firm moved Jeanne and me out of the building to another site. Jeanne never worked in the building again. At the time I thought it was awful that she had to leave, but in retrospect, I was the one who was not so lucky.

The group of investigators found several OSHA violations such as chemicals in the break rooms and in the heating vents, the new unvented printing press on the floor below us, the lack of a functioning ventilation system for the building, humidifiers containing bacteria and mold, air vents that had not been cleaned for decades, air diffusers loaded with bacteria at dangerous levels, and other health hazards too numerous to mention. Bad air quality tests had the entire group of investigators calling this a sick building.

Two and a half years later I read the minutes from an air quality meeting of all those involved. The health firm representative said: “Both individuals [meaning me and my friend] interviewed were showing significant symptoms of reaction. . . . There was a high probability that people within the building were experiencing symptoms without speaking up. . . . The evidence to date, the MSDS sheets [material safety data sheets], the nature of the symptoms, the locations all point to a potential level of hazard that is defined in some cases as life threatening.” I read this in quiet shock. Even after I had become permanently sick, I had never realized how endangered we all had been at the time.    

Meanwhile, I had just been hired to be the clerical supervisor of our legal unit, and I was thrilled about it. I was unable to do my job off-site they said, so back into the building I went, but in another location upstairs.

About two weeks after I had been in the upstairs site, my boss came to me and wanted me to move back to my old work site. He said, “If you can’t do this job, we’ll find someone who can.” I got the message and considered it a threat. I was a single parent of three kids, one out of the house, one in college, one still in high school, and me the sole provider living on a shoestring budget. My boss threatens my job, my very existence, my children’s security in one sentence showing who had the power, and let me tell you, it wasn’t me.

I sat and stared out the window for a long time after he left. I said things to myself like, “Well, are you going to whine and cry about this or are you going to go do your job?” The debate raged on: “Are you going to get sicker here and ruin your health?” And I imagined those bill collectors saying, “My money is due on this date and that date.” It was a horrible decision to have to make, and I didn’t know what to do. I finally told myself that I would go out of the building to breathe some fresh air when I needed to, and I would just put up with the burning sensations, rashes, and breathing difficulties as I had been doing for several months anyway. I would deal with problems as they arose. If it had been just me, I would have left in a minute, but my middle daughter deserved to stay in college and my younger daughter was in the middle of her senior year of high school, with its extra expenses. So I went downstairs to my old desk in the unit where the air quality was the very worst in the entire building and sat there for another six months, reacting every day.

Then in May the granite steps leading into the building were redone. They were only about forty feet from my desk. It was incredibly humid and in the nineties, so people began to open the windows along the side of the building facing the construction. Cement mixer dust, gas generator exhaust, and epoxy fumes drifted into the building. I began to react. I sat there for six hours while they worked on those steps. My eyes felt as if a pile of sand had been filtered under my lids. It hurt to move them. My breathing was raspy, and I was losing my voice. I was wiped out with fatigue and was unable to concentrate. Welts appeared on my neck, and my skin was on fire. My face and mouth were asleep and burning so bad I could not touch my tongue to the roof of my mouth without pain. I was sick to my stomach and had a terrible headache that I can still remember, so I went to my boss and asked if I could go home. When I told him I was reacting to the construction fumes, he rolled his eyes, but I went home sick anyway at 2 pm.

Unfortunately, the symptoms that usually dissipated by the end of the fifteen-minute ride home did not disappear, and I returned the next day to the same construction situation not fully recovered and reacting anew. Overnight a group of five polyps running from just under my left eye down my cheek appeared on my face, and my doctor later said they were from “skin trauma.” [Note from Alison Johnson: When Marilyn came to my house, she still had one or two of these polyps on her face. I remember thinking that I had never seen anything like it before.] I toughed out another partial day and then made an appointment with my doctor. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had gone over the edge with this second major exposure and my life would never be the same again.

My doctor had known about the solvent exposure from the printing press, and when I went to him after the step renovation exposure, he insisted I leave the building. Enough. I couldn’t have stayed there anyway. Even if Christine dropped out of college, Beth didn’t even graduate, and the bill collectors camped in tents on my lawn, I couldn’t have worked in that building. I was sick there each time I walked in, and I couldn’t fight it.

After the exposure from the step renovation, I began to become sick in other places. One day when I went to another building for an appointment, the person helping me said: “You’re getting really red and your voice is hoarse. Are you all right?”  I replied, “I do feel kind of funny.” In about ten minutes you could hear me breathing, so I immediately left the room and headed to the elevator. It was four floors down to fresh air, and I almost didn’t make it. I sat outside on a bench, shaking and upset. What was happening to me?

(Continued in the next blog)