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New team joins hunt at Equifax

Hair loss reports remain unexplained as investigators continue tests and interviews.

A team of investigators from an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have spent the past two days interviewing employees and conducting tests at Equifax Payment Services, where some workers have suffered a mysterious hair losses.

Five investigators from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, an arm of the CDC, joined three from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the continuing investigation of possible environmental contamination at the Gateway area office building.

"They're going over the place with a fine-tooth comb," Lawrence Falck, Tampa area director for OSHA, said Wednesday.

Although they are reviewing the entire 300,000-square-foot building at 11601 Roosevelt Blvd., Falck said, "they're kind of concentrating on the areas where the majority of problems appear to be happening."

In addition to talking to the employees, Falck said, they are conducting more tests of radiation levels in the building. However, he said, "to my knowledge nothing has been found yet."

Equifax officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Executive vice president Larry J. Towe said earlier this month that he has set aside $200,000 to pay for environmental tests around the building and its 55-acre parcel, as well as medical tests for any employees who want them.

"We're trying to find the answer," Towe said then. "I will do the right thing for our people."

Three of the 2,200 Equifax employees complained to OSHA in March that each had experienced a mysterious hair loss. Since the federal agency's investigation began, dozens more current and former employees have called in to report possible health problems or just ask questions about what could be happening.

Some tests of the groundwater beneath the building turned up contamination by the heavy metal thallium, which initially seemed a likely suspect. One of the symptoms of thallium poisoning is hair loss.

But Equifax officials have pointed out that employees are unlikely to come into contact with the underground water, and a company consultant doing further testing has raised questions about the method used in the original groundwater samples.

So far, tests by OSHA and by Equifax consultants have turned up no other apparent culprit.

The NIOSH investigators include an industrial hygienist and two occupational health physicians. OSHA's team now includes two industrial hygienists and a professor from the University of South Florida.

NIOSH will prepare a report on the investigators' findings and any proposed solutions, but there is no deadline for when that report might be ready, according to agency spokesman Fred Blosser. It is possible the agency might have to return for more testing or interviews, he said.