James Handley’s story appears in my 2008 book Amputated Lives: Coping with Chemical Sensitivity. In the Introduction to that book, I noted that if the scientific community had taken seriously the widespread illnesses resulting from the 1987 installation of new carpet in the national EPA headquarters in the Waterside Mall in Washington, the groundwork would have been laid for saving tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of people from developing chemical sensitivity as a result of the Exxon Valdez cleanup, the 1991 Gulf War, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, and Hurricane Katrina.
After spending two years as a trial lawyer at big firms in San Antonio, I was thrilled to be admitted to the Master of Laws program in environmental law at George Washington University in 1987. I had pursued chemical engineering and law degrees as preparation for a career in environmental protection, and the specialized program at GW promised to open doors into my chosen field. My thesis adviser noted my undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and referred me for a work-study program under John Wheeler, an attorney in the EPA’s Waste Enforcement Division. John was leading the EPA’s legal team on the Love Canal Superfund case.
My first visit to the EPA headquarters in the Waterside Mall in southwest Washington left an indelible impression: the building is one of the most dreary, depressing, and ugly places I’ve ever set foot in. Wheeler escorted me down winding corridors that were so narrow that two people could barely pass. These hallways were dimly lit by flickering blue fluorescent lights and were punctuated by missing ceiling tiles and stacks of worn-out office equipment, boxes, and other junk. A stale, vaguely chemical odor hung in the air.
Wheeler’s dark office was deep in the interior of the building, far from any windows or sources of natural light or fresh air. As I sat in his guest chair, he studied my résumé and said that my chemistry and litigation background would be very useful for the cases in their branch. He was sure they could find plenty of interesting work for me, so we set up my work schedule. A few days later, I reported to the office and began carefully reading and summarizing the chemistry experts’ depositions in the Missouri dioxin case. In this notorious case, a waste hauler had accepted “still bottoms” (thick, oily distillation waste) from a chemical plant that made hexachlorophene, an antibacterial ingredient used in soaps. Instead of taking the waste, which contained dioxin, to a permitted facility and paying the required disposal fee, the hauler had simply cracked open the valve on the back of his tank truck and dribbled the oily waste onto the roads in the area, apparently pocketing the disposal fee. His mischief came to light when horses started dying at a stable where he had, for a fee, oiled the dirt paths. The story triggered extensive TV and press coverage, particularly on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
I was eager to apply my chemical engineering course work in organic chemistry, distillation processes, and analytical chemistry to this important environmental enforcement case. Before the semester was over, I had methodically read and summarized a mountain of chemistry depositions and probably knew more about the chemistry aspects of the case (which were key to establishing liability) than anyone else in the government.
As the semester ended, our branch chief asked me if I would be willing to shift to a part-time class schedule at George Washington University the next semester so that I could start working full-time at the EPA. His branch was facing deadlines in the Missouri dioxin case as well as the Love Canal litigation and related cases in the Niagara Falls area. My dream of becoming an environmental protection lawyer and having the privilege of working on some of the key national cases was coming true.
The EPA office where I first worked was generally grim. It was cramped, noisy, and vaguely smoky (the EPA had only recently pro-hibited smoking in the building). Then in April 1988 we moved to newly renovated offices off a corridor on the other side of the Waterside Mall. Although we were excited to be leaving our ugly old offices and cubicles, my colleagues and I immediately noticed the powerful solvent odor from the new carpet that had been installed the weekend before we unpacked.
At that point, the Love Canal case was busy enough that John Wheeler and I would often work weekends. Every time I entered the building, especially on weekends when the ventilation was not running, I was struck by the pungent “new carpet” smell. Many people complained of headaches and burning eyes. I also felt a burning sensation in my nose and throat and felt so sleepy that I started drinking tea just to stay awake.
Amy Svoboda, another young lawyer in our branch, seemed to be especially hard hit by the polluted air in our building. She sometimes slurred her words, just didn’t finish her thoughts, or said things that didn’t quite make sense. And I noticed that she seemed more severely affected by the end of the day. She and I agreed to take each other on fresh air breaks two or three times a day to regain our alertness and diminish our symptoms. I was distressed to notice Amy’s condition worsening week by week and was also frightened when I gradually realized that I was experiencing similar effects. In addition to my burning eyes and throat, I started to notice that I just couldn’t think clearly and sometimes completely forgot what I was doing.
At branch meetings, our health problems became a regular agenda item. We decided to survey all the members of the Waste Enforcement Division about any symptoms they might be experiencing. Some people seemed to be symptom-free, but in general the survey results indicated that there was a very widespread problem. We presented the results to our supervisors, but most of them asked questions that suggested that they didn’t take the situation seriously or couldn’t do much about it.
The local board of the labor union that represented EPA profes-sionals included several toxicologists and chemists, who became interested in the building-related health problems that various EPA staff members were developing. In the union newsletter, which I helped edit, we published articles about these health problems and suggested that affected staff report to the EPA health unit to register their health complaints.
The union’s health and safety representatives reported that the building’s ventilation system was providing only five to ten percent fresh air into the building. The rest of the meager flow of air from the ceiling vents was recycled indoor air that included air from several rooms containing large high-speed copy machines that operated nearly continuously, spewing chemical fumes into the air. The building owner claimed it was impossible to open the dampers to allow additional fresh air into the building. Often, I could hear the ventilation blowers shut off in the late afternoon, and I began intercepting the maintenance man who shut the blowers off as he clocked out for the day, which was sometimes as early as 3:30 P.M. When we complained, the EPA management assured us the ventilation would be left on until 7 P.M., the end of the EPA flexible-time workday. But within weeks, the building owner had reverted to turning the blowers off early.
On June 25, 1989, Mark Bradley, M.D., an occupational medicine physician who was the health unit doctor, sent a memo to EPA Administrator William Reilly reporting what he had observed during the six months he had been a consultant at the EPA Health Unit:
At least 80% of the [approximately 60] individuals who I examined, have bone fide medical problems which I believe are caused by working at the Waterside Mall complex. Fifty to sixty percent had symptoms and physical findings . . . typical of “Tight Building Syndrome” . . . eye and throat irritation, headaches . . . some people were severely affected. Thirty to forty percent . . . had symptoms of airway hyperreactivity . . . a form of occupational asthma. Ten percent of patients had evidence of allergic alveolitis, an inflammatory reaction in the alveoli and bronchioles of the lung resulting from an immune interaction between inhaled organic particles, circulating antibodies and sensitized lymphocites [sic]. This condition can be progressive, leading to progressive pulmonary impairment and death. . . . I am certain that . . . I saw only a small fraction of the people . . . potentially adversely affected. . . . There is a major public health situation at this location, and . . . [it] is not being dealt with in a timely, positive and responsible fashion.
The EPA’s response to Dr. Bradley (a contract employee) was to immediately terminate his employment.
In one particularly troubling incident, an attorney in the Air Division passed out and was carried out of the building on a stretcher. Everyone was concerned, but there was still no action from management. The EPA professionals’ union seemed to be the only organization doing anything about the problem. The union was pressing for removal of what we now called “the toxic carpet,” but was meeting resistance from management and also from some staff who preferred carpet to tile floors. Our division managers agreed to remove the carpet only if there was a consensus in favor of doing so. Two attorneys resisted, raising concerns about the noise that a bare floor would engender. Everyone else agreed that a little noise was far less harmful than the toxic fumes that were knocking us all out. Finally, on February 2, 1990, management announced that at the end of the week, the carpet would be removed from rooms in the area where I and most of the Waste Enforcement Division staff worked. By then, we had been breathing the carpet fumes for almost two years.
A few months later the union got the EPA to agree to have the carpet removed from the rest of the headquarters building. The EPA never admitted a problem, but EPA employees had been featured on several news shows concerning the carpet situation. On CBS’s “Street Stories,” Ed Bradley had interviewed me and Bill Hirzy, a Ph.D. chemist who later became president of our union. For weeks after the story aired, the union’s answering machine was loaded with messages from people all over the country asking for advice about similar health problems caused by new carpet. By this point, it was clear that the carpet that the General Services Administration had procured for the EPA was very low grade. It may even have been off-specification and therefore sold at a discount. For instance, if the chemical reaction to cross-link the polymer in the carpet backing had not been carried out or completed properly, excess monomer (a smaller and lighter molecule) would have remained in the carpet, vaporizing over time and also making the carpet wear out faster.
The Waterside Mall had been constructed to house retail stores and had then been converted into a densely packed government office building. Staff had complained about inadequate ventilation from the beginning of the EPA’s occupancy. Installing cheap and probably defective carpet that released solvents into a poorly ventilated building was a formula for a gas chamber.
After the removal of the carpet, many people still experienced indoor air symptoms in Waterside Mall. Their health problems were compounded when in September 1990, several months after the carpet had been removed, contractors began to replace the building’s flat asphalt roof. This operation continued over the next several months. Workers on the roof heated tar in caldrons and applied it to the roof. Because the intake vents for the building’s ventilation system are also on the roof, the tar fumes got sucked into the vents that supplied our offices.
One day another attorney and I were at a meeting on the fifth floor of the West Tower. From that vantage point, we could see below us the roof of the mall, where the roofing work was being done over our offices. We could see the caldrons of tar with the gray vapor rising a few feet and then curling back down as it was sucked into the building through a nearby air intake. The pungent, sulfurous smell of tar permeated our offices for months. Thick, gray smoke frequently impaired the visibility in the corridors and offices. Inhaling the smoke made my head ache and my chest tighten, as if someone were sitting on me, so it was a struggle to breathe.
After weeks of staff complaints about the roof tar fumes, our deputy division director sent out a memo allowing people to take work home if the fumes made them sick. He also allowed us to bring in air filters. At the union’s insistence, the EPA began to allow people who had medical documentation to work at home. It seemed impossible for me to manage to work from home with a team of others all the time, so I only worked at home a few afternoons a week. I often took work outside the building, however, and sat on a bench in a nearby park. Branch meetings were cumbersome; we had to meet outside the building so that the sick people who were working at home, like Amy Svoboda, could join us. We met in adjacent buildings like the public library and Southwest University.
On February 25, 1991, the roof tar fumes were particularly thick. While I was participating in a conference call in my branch chief’s office, I lost consciousness. He was stunned and suggested that I take the option of working at home all the time. To make this possible, I needed to start obtaining medical documentation. Up to that point, I had viewed the building air problem as more or less a temporary inconvenience to me, although I could clearly see that others were getting seriously ill.
I often had burning eyes and nasal membranes, a tight feeling in my chest, bouts of fatigue and forgetfulness, headaches, light-headedness, dizziness, “brain fog,” a vague achiness throughout my body, and an unquenchable thirst. I could not keep long distance telephone numbers in mind long enough to dial them, so I had to rearrange my desk so I could read the numbers while pressing the phone keys. Another disturbing symptom was a twitching in my eyes and face. All these symptoms except the fatigue, which was becoming constant, seemed to begin soon after I entered the building and then diminish a few hours or a day after I left.
My doctor ordered a spirometry test, which measures the maxi-mum rate and volume of air exhalation and plots it on a graph against time. I blew as hard and fast as I could into a tube, and the machine plotted the results on a graph. We repeated the test the next Monday after I had been away from the office for the weekend. I was surprised to see that the graphs were markedly different. I had exhaled more air and did so much faster after spending the weekend away from the Waterside Mall. My doctor wrote a letter to my supervisor saying that the building appeared to be adversely affecting my health and that if possible I should be allowed to work at home. That letter enabled me to move my office to my house, which was near Capitol Hill.
After the carpet had been removed and the re-roofing completed, the EPA ordered a contractor to perform a study of the indoor air. Air monitors were set up in various parts of the building. During the test, the building’s ventilation fans ran faster than we had ever heard them running before. For the first time, we noticed that papers were blowing off people’s desks, and the air in the building had never been fresher. Even under those unusually good conditions, the study results showed elevated levels of contamination and documented the fact that many people were experiencing health problems. Unfortunately, no measurements had ever been made while the new carpet and tar fumes were present in the offices. Such measurements would have helped explain the illnesses of hundreds of EPA employees.
Eventually, the sick employees were forced to face the reality that virtually the entire politically appointed management of the EPA was completely indifferent to our plight and unwilling to help us, despite their occasional pronouncements of concern. We were bogged down in a deeply entrenched culture of denial. The EPA management continued to deny and obstruct resolution of the building problems. The chief of the Health and Safety Division even distributed on April 27, 1993, a memo prohibiting the use of air filters in the building. He asserted that they were for home use and had not been shown to work in our office settings, and he also objected to the cost of electricity to operate the filters.
Over the years, the union had learned quite a bit about the carpet and had found that its backing was made with styrene-butadiene latex, which was widely used in the carpet industry. When Bill Hirzy, Ph.D., asked Dr. Rosalind Anderson, a toxicologist, to study samples of the carpet that had been removed from Waterside Mall, she found that even relatively brief exposures to samples of the carpet caused immediate symptoms in mice. Dr. Anderson discovered that the carpet was emitting 4-phenylcyclohexane, a potent neurotoxicant that is apparently an unwanted by-product when latex is polymerized.
Armed with this information, Bill Hirzy and I persuaded Representatives Bernie Sanders and Mike Synar, who chaired the House Oversight Committee for Governmental Affairs, to call a hearing on June 11, 1993, to ask the EPA, the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission), OSHA (Office of Safety and Health Administration), NIOSH (National Institute of Science and Health), and the carpet industry why people were getting sick from carpet and what the agencies were doing about it.
At the hearing that was held on June 11, 1993, union representatives and Dr. Anderson testified. She had videotaped an experiment that showed the effects of the carpet on mice. Dr. Anderson had the mice run down a narrow track under four conditions. First, was the control group that had not been exposed to the carpet. The second group had spent one hour in a vented chamber with the carpet. The third group had spent two hours in the chamber; the fourth group, three hours. The control mice navigated the track easily and quickly. The mice exposed for an hour weaved about somewhat and were visibly slowed down. The mice exposed for two hours didn’t all complete the run; some fell off the track. The mice exposed for three hours were comatose or dead.
Bill Hirzy asked me to meet Dr. Anderson at her hotel and take her to dinner the night before the hearing to discuss her testimony. Over dinner, I decided to ask her some questions that I thought might come up at the hearing and were also of keen interest to me. Why, I asked, weren’t the people (including me) who had worked in offices with that same carpet for over a year not more visibly affected, or even dead, like the mice? She expected the question but warned me that I might not like the answer. She admitted that she couldn’t answer from an empirical point of view, but she pointed out that humans have a lot more redundancy in their brains than mice do. She suggested that our brains had been harmed in the same way that the mice brains were, but that because our brains are larger, they could reroute the signals and were able to cope with higher doses for longer times. The damage was like a series of small strokes, she said. Small injuries that add up. And if any of us were ever hit on the head or had a stroke or got Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, we might have fewer “spare parts” to compensate. That news didn’t make my dinner go down well, but it made sense. It meant that in terms of brain function, I and my colleagues were effectively driving with a flat tire.
The next day’s congressional hearing was just beautiful. The room was crowded with press and EPA staff wearing buttons that said “Protect the Environment of EPA Employees.” After Dr. Anderson explained her research and showed her video to the committee, the reaction was stunned silence. The EPA management offered excuses, but primarily maintained that carpet toxicity wasn’t something EPA could address. The Consumer Products Safety Commission looked ridiculous; its representative said there wasn’t enough scientific certainty to take action yet. The carpet industry didn’t admit any health problems but proposed to attach warning labels to carpet suggesting that sensitive people air new carpet out for a while and watch for symptoms. I’m not aware of any congressional, EPA, or CPSC action that followed that hearing, but I noticed that over the succeeding years carpet with styrene-butadiene backing seemed to have disappeared from the stores.
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I was eventually able to transfer to the Toxics and Pesticides Enforcement Division, which was moving out of Waterside Mall to the Ariel Rios Federal Building. I requested and was assigned to an office with an operable window to accommodate my chemical sensitivity, and for about five years, I was able to work there productively with few reactions to airborne contaminants. In 2000, however, after coping with sporadic health problems in the Rios Building, my health began to decline once again when renovations were started in nearby areas that included sanding the floors and refinishing them with polyurethane. At that point, having been made sick twice before by chemical exposures, I decided to get a thorough medical evaluation to document my symptoms and injury. I consulted with a widely published expert on chemical brain injury, Dr. Kaye Kilburn at the University of Southern California. His examination included four hours of tests, and he found strong evidence of chemical brain injury. After considering my situation carefully, I submitted the required documentation to seek early retirement. The materials I submitted included not only Dr. Kilburn’s report but also observations by my branch chief about my low energy level when I was exposed to chemicals and specifics about how I had become disoriented and ill after exposures to diesel exhaust during a business trip with him. Within a few months, the Office of Personnel Manage-ment offered me early retirement at a small fraction of my salary.
While I was fearful about my financial future, I knew that my symptoms were progressing and I couldn’t count on getting another chance like that, so I left the EPA at the end of November 2000. It was an anguishing decision to relinquish my career, which was a very important part of my identity, but my dream job had become a nightmare. I had worked at the forefront of environmental issues that I consider vital to the future of my country, but I had also found repeatedly that the agency charged with environmental protection was unwilling or unable to protect its own employees and was also stunningly ineffectual at protecting the public or the larger environment.