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toxic mold sickness, disability of IBM workers

toxic mold lawsuits start to pile up as management goes blind, deaf, and dumb to complaints. This is a huge dynamic concerning pollution and health. Press still tries not to print much on this.

Friday, July 11, 2003 12:00AM EDT

Mold lawsuits target IBM
Workers say place made them ill

By KARIN RIVES, Staff Writer

A few days after 30,000 gallons of water flooded her IBM office building in April 2000, Julie Ord began to feel sick.
Once an avid tennis player , she began suffering from debilitating fatigue and memory loss.

Now on long-term disability leave from her job as a senior financial analyst at IBM, Ord is one of several workers suing the computer giant, alleging that it failed to protect employees from toxic mold at the company's Research Triangle Park campus.

It's one of the first cases involving workplace mold to hit a North Carolina employer, but among a growing number of such suits brought against companies nationwide in recent years. With mold problems increasingly in the news and more lawyers willing to accept such cases, insurers have seen triple-digit increases in mold-related claims against owners of commercial buildings since 2000, according the Insurance Information Institute.

"There isn't a lot of science to back up these allegations, but trial lawyers work very hard to spin mold into gold," said Bob Hartwig, the Insurance Information Institute's chief economist. "A few years ago, these cases didn't exist at all, and there's no more mold today than ... three years ago. But trial lawyers have identified mold as a potentially lucrative source of income."

The RTP workers named in the suits say they want to take their cases to court to help other IBM employees who might still be exposed to hazards.

"I had a hard time believing there would be a mold problem at work," said Linda Allen, a 22-year IBM veteran who was a program manager when she began to suffer from severe muscle spasms and vertigo in 2000.

"My employer told me there wasn't mold in the building, and I believed them," she said. "It's been very disappointing."

IBM spokesman John Lucy said the company can't comment on pending litigation. "However, our first priority is, and always has been, the health and safety of our employees," Lucy said.

Allen, 43, and Ord, 40, filed a lawsuit in Durham County Superior Court in December. It was recently moved to U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.

Their suit came on the heels of two other lawsuits filed in October last year in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina by two former IBM workers, Patricia Pendergraph and Penny Cozadd. Both sued IBM under the Americans with Disabilities Act, alleging that the company failed to accommodate them at work after they were exposed to mold.

Martin Horn, the Durham lawyer representing Allen and Ord, said he was recently retained by Pendergraph and Cozadd to file another lawsuit on their behalf. It will allege that the company willfully neglected to protect the women from a hazardous work environment, Horn said.

There is also a push to get other IBM workers to come forward.

The Alliance@IBM this week sent out a survey asking employees to divulge any health effects they suspect could be related to mold. The group, sponsored by the Communications Workers of America, was created several years ago as part of an effort to try to organize IBM workers at RTP and elsewhere.

"If they had been more truthful with us, maybe we wouldn't have these health problems," said Cozadd, a 42-year-old engineering specialist who had worked 17 years at IBM when she suddenly came down with severe allergic reactions that sent her to the emergency room.

She and Pendergraph, who shared an office in IBM's building 205, contend that they became ill after a leak caused water damage near their workspace in 2001. Both women were terminated from IBM in August, a few months after they filed discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"What happened to these workers was wrong," Horn said. "It has devastated their lives. And mold is such a simple thing to fix if you just spend a few dollars on repairs and maintenance."

Ord and Allen allege in their lawsuit that IBM knew there was dangerous mold in the facility where they worked . Both were among employees who continued to work in the building after a portion of it flooded one weekend in April 2000.

"One of the fatal mistakes I believe was made, was that they took way too long to clean up the water-damaged material," said Ord, who worked 13 years at IBM before she went on long-term sick leave in November 2000. "I had to walk on these wet carpets to get to the bathroom or to meetings. I didn't think anything of it."

An analysis of samples of carpet and wallboard conducted by Research Triangle Institute, completed in July 2000, showed there was fungi -- including toxic molds -- in the building, their lawsuit says.

Health effects associated with toxic mold have not been thoroughly researched. But it's known that inhaling certain mold spores can cause problems ranging from skin rashes, nausea and respiratory problems to cancer, the Environmental Protection Agency says.

Sick building worries have led to a rash of mold-related lawsuits across the country in recent years.

In New Jersey, 16 state workers sued the owners and property managers of a downtown Trenton office building earlier this year, contending that they suffered asthma and other respiratory infections because of mold exposure. Dozens more cases have made the court dockets in other states.

In general, indoor air quality issues have received more attention in recent years, with mold topping the list, said Lisa Junker, a spokeswoman for the American Industrial Hygiene Association. Since the 1970s, buildings have been constructed more tightly to conserve energy -- in many cases at the expense of proper ventilation.

"That can create conditions that make it easier for mold to grow," Junker said.

Staff writer Karin Rives can be reached at 829-4521 or  krives@newsobserver.com.
News researchers Brooke Cain and Toby Lyles contributed to this article.

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