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Bay Pines VA says it got out front of mold problem, but workers insist they were long ignored

Officials have had to deal with mold problems inside buildings at the sprawling Bay Pines VA Health System campus in St. Petersburg. [Times files (2014)]
Published Nov. 23, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Dozens of workers at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System are being moved out of their building because of an infestation of mold that can cause health problems.

Sixty employees in the system's social work office were moved after Bay Pines officials received the results of an indoor air quality test Nov. 7 showing "a heightened level of common indoor mold," said spokeswoman Melanie Thomas.

The investigation, conducted in October by the company VRG of Clearwater, identified two types of mold — aspergillus and penicillium, both known to cause health problems in people with compromised immune systems. The molds can lead to allergic reactions and infections in the lungs and other organs, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

A copy of the investigation report was obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

Bay Pines officials say they are taking a proactive approach by ordering the employee moves.

"The bottom line is that we take appropriate action as quickly as possible on all reported concerns while ensuring the safety of staff, patients, and all those who visit our facilities," Thomas said. "While there is no established health standard for mold spore counts inside buildings, employees with greater mold sensitivity were encouraged to visit our occupational health department."

Still, several employees who spoke with the Times said they have been complaining about health problems in the building for years to management and their union.

What's more, employees have been moved before from the building — a manufactured structure known as Building T-203. That was in 2011, when an indoor air quality study found an elevated level of mold that can cause health problems, said Catherine Ponder, 58, of Clearwater, a social worker there.

Bay Pines spokeswoman Thomas said the employees were moved out of the building then because of extensive renovations, which included "remediation for any environmental concerns at the time."

In addition, an indoor air quality report conducted by VRG in December found visible mold and water stains and elevated humidity in the building.

• • •

Several employees say the building has recurring problems with water intrusion and humidity, problems that can lead to the formation of mold. Thomas said that despite these problems, the December report showed the air quality inside the building was better than that outside.

During a meeting with Bay Pines officials in March, employees brought up their concerns about mold again, according to a review of meeting records obtained by the Times. Despite the complaints, it would be another seven months before the building was tested.

One employee, 54-year-old community employment coordinator Rae Chapman of St. Petersburg, asked management for an air purifier in November 2017 because she was suffering throat and breathing problems as well as dizziness and nausea, in part from mold in the building, according to a document she filed with Bay Pines last November.

Chapman, a lieutenant colonel disabled by asthma during her time in the Marines, said Bay Pines officials retaliated against her earlier this year for reasons including her request for the air purifier and to see indoor air quality reports. She filed a complaint of employment discrimination against the hospital system in July, singling out then-director Suzanne Klinker and Harrison Reeder, head of the social work unit.

Thomas, the Bay Pines spokeswoman, said she could not comment on the complaint.

Social worker Ponder said she suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and gout among other health issues, all of them aggravated by mold in the building. In January 2018, she said, she complained about the problem to Klinker and to the office of U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist. Crist's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Thomas said she was "unable to confirm" that Ponder lodged a complaint.

One former employee, Karen Marlett, said she experienced upper respiratory tract infections while working in the building but did not suspect a possible connection to mold until the recent indoor air report was released.

"If they knew there was mold, they were really wrong in not telling me," said Marlett, 62, of Clearwater, who worked at Bay Pines from 2012 until 2016.

• • •

Bay Pines officials acknowledge there have been complaints about mold in the building since 2009 but that in each case, action was taken "in accordance with federal and state safety standards," Thomas said.

Other buildings on the campus also have had issues with mold, a chronic indoor problem in a state with as much rainfall and moisture as Florida.

In 2016, Bay Pines officials partially closed a ward in the main hospital building after the discovery of mold from leaking pipes in shower rooms.

Chapman's lawyer said the most recent indoor air quality report is proof that long-standing complaints about the building were accurate.

"This report shows what individuals have been complaining about for years to be true," said Tampa attorney Natalie Khawam, who is representing Chapman in her complaint against the VA. "Mold is present, it is dangerous, and has negatively impacted the health of numerous employees."

Employees in the building began moving out the week of Nov. 12, Thomas said, and should be working in new quarters by Wednesday.

"The move will accommodate those employees with greater mold sensitivity and will also allow the facility to conduct full remediation," Thomas said. "Employees who have greater mold sensitivity were encouraged to visit occupational health."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman

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