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Toxic Mold Spawns Lawsuit

Mar 13, 2002 | WDSU

Dangerous working conditions have been discovered in Plaquemines Parish, where toxic mold has invaded a building, leaving several people sick and two seriously ill with respiratory problems.

The parish's 911 dispatchers were working out of a borrowed bus after health officials found stachybotrys mold in the Port Sulphur building.

Months ago, after employees complained of health problems, the parish sheriff asked for a complete inspection of the building. Now, there is controversy over an alleged delay in notifying the sheriff and his employees of the potential danger.

Why did it take so long for parish leaders to turn the report over?

"I have two of my dispatchers that are seriously ill with lung problems," Sheriff Jiff Hingle said. "I've had numerous others that have been out from work because of rash problems, sinus problems, headaches -- and it seems to be after they pulled a complete shift here these problems seem to flare up."

"Almost all of the operators who've been there have symptoms of sinus and allergies," dispatcher Aretha Etienne said.

The problems were so persistent that Hingle asked parish administrators to examine the mold and water leaks in the building.

In November, a consultant delivered a report to parish officials noting that toxic mold was found in ceiling tiles in the dispatch room. The report cited authorities who called the conditions "unacceptable" from a human health-risk perspective.

For four months, the report sat in Belle Chasse, according to WDSU NewsChannel 6 investigative reporter Richard Angelico. Hingle said he learned about the report and the danger just last week.

"When I read it, I saw there were toxins inside the building, and to be on the safe side, I thought it was best we go ahead and evacuate the employees from there."

Hingle said when he arrived at the building to issue the evacuation orders, he found parish workers tearing out the contaminated ceiling tiles while his dispatchers sat unprotected at their stations.

"Our people had no protection, no breathing apparatus to protect them from any of the toxic mold that could be moving around in the air," Hingle said. "And unfortunately, even their own employees weren't properly equipped and haven't been properly trained. The report was very specific -- you had to use a trained contractor or you could make the situation worse."

Hingle said he is angry that he was not told about the report and the danger to his deputies as soon as the results were delivered to parish officials.

"First of all, they did not deliver the report to me," Parish President Benny Rouselle said. "The report was delivered to the health department, and the health department evidently delivered it to the building maintenance department and they discussed what their plan of action would be."

When asked had he known about the report, would he have delayed telling the sheriff about toxic mold in one of his offices or sent untrained and unprotected workers to rip out a contaminated ceiling?

"Had I read the report, I probably would have approached the subject a little differently," Rouselle said. "However, since the litigation has been filed, I can't abandon my health department."

Attorney Eric O'Bell represents deputies who have sued the parish. The failure to notify the sheriff for four months and the ripping out of the ceiling tiles are at the heart of his class-action litigation.

"I just don't know (how many people were affected by the mold)," O'Bell said. "I know what's in there and that it's toxic. That mold is toxic, and we want to have all those people tested by a doctor to see what kind of inuuries they could have sustained."

Rouselle said he is still looking into work that may have been done on the building between November and early March. He also has filed a police report about the garbage bags full of contaminated ceiling tiles. It seems they are now missing.

More offices in the parish are now being tested for the presence of toxic mold.

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