I-Team: Health concerns at the Hampden County Courthouse

I-Team

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – The Hampden County Courthouse in Springfield is one of the oldest trial court buildings in the Commonwealth. Some employees say the building is making people sick.

The 22News I-Team was sent a copy of an eight-page report created by an unknown number of employees at the Hampden County Courthouse. Inside, it details serious illnesses that they say other people got while working at the courthouse.

Health Concerns

The Hampden County Courthouse, also known as the Roderick L. Ireland Courthouse, in downtown Springfield is nearly five decades old. For the past 15 years, employees have raised concerns about the health risks that allegedly come with working in the building.

This began in 2005 when it was discovered that four employees died from pancreatic cancer within a 10-year span. Then in 2018, these concerns were renewed when Judge William Boyle was diagnosed with ALS, just five years after Judge Robert Kumor died of the same disease. Both worked in the same office, one right after the other, and died of the disease.

“The report says it’s like hitting Powerball, having two people in the same room, in the same building, coming down with the same dreadful disease,” State Representative Angelo Puppolo said. “Coincidences are one thing, but this is highly coincidental.”

A third long-time courthouse employee also was diagnosed with ALS and died in 2017, according to the employee report.

According to The ALS Association, ALS is discovered in about two people per every 100,000. There is no known cause of the rare disease, but 10 percent of cases are inherited through a mutated gene, according to ALSA.

The employee report cites a Harvard University study from 2018 that found that people who were exposed to diesel fumes were more likely to get ALS. The employee report says that both judges and the third long-time worker had offices over what was, at the time of their employment, the entrance to the underground parking garage where diesel vehicles entered and idled. About a quarter of employees reported smelling diesel or gasoline-like odors throughout the building at some point.

The courthouse windows do not open but are known to be poorly sealed, allowing in moisture on rainy days. These poorly sealed windows make it likely that fumes from the garage entrance below also entered the offices of the person who had ALS.

– Anonymous employee report
Both judges used the same office located a few floors above this garage, according to the employee report.

Rep. Puppolo was a good friend of Judge Boyle and has been advocating for a new courthouse in Springfield for years.

“There’s a ton of people that go in there, either work there or utilize,” Rep. Puppolo said. “My main concern is public safety and the safety of the people who work there. If there wasn’t a case to build a new courthouse, I think this document outlines a solid foundation that the Trial Court needs to start doing it.”

Testing the Building

In 2018 after meeting with Hampden County Courthouse employees, the State Trial Court hired an environmental consultant, Environmental Health & Engineering, to test the air and water quality in the building. John Williams, Massachusetts Trial Court Administrator, told the 22News I-Team that these tests were run day and night for six weeks. They were testing for things that could be tied to the symptoms employees were reporting.

In a newly released draft report of those results, EH&E “did not identify conditions that would support an environmental work-related cause for the cases of chronic health conditions reported in the buildings, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or cancer.”

The draft report does say, though, that the building has mold issues, water damage, and dirty air ducts.

“We tested the air quality, the mold is not in the air,” Williams said. “In fact, the mold inside the building is lower than the mold in the air outside.”

The 22News I-Team found black and crumbling ceilings in the Hampden County Courthouse.

The 22News I-Team asked Williams if the building was safe.

“There’s nothing in the evidence that we collected that shows anything of concern, except we need to do better jobs of cleaning,” Williams explained. “There are some areas of mold, things like that. We need to get rid of moisture sources. We need to clean that up, and there are some better ways for us to do business.”

Both Rep. Puppolo and Sen. Welch say they are concerned about what will happen to the day-to-day business at the courthouse when the clean-up projects begin.

“If they do mold remediation, are they going to remove the employees from the building and put them in another?” Sen. Welch questioned.

“Employees still need to work, so we need to have some sort of temporary facility, and then look at either putting in another building right on that footprint or looking somewhere else,” Puppolo said.

Calls For A New Building

The state Trial Court’s “Capital Master Plan,” issued in 2018 did not include the Hampden County Courthouse in Phase 1 of $3 billion in work planned for courts statewide.

“If this issue was happening in Boston, they would have built two courthouses,” State Senator James Welch said. “We should be able to, as a Commonwealth, ensure that when we ask people to show up to work in a state building, it’s safe and it’s healthy.”

“As we prioritized things, health issues were among the major concerns, and at the time, we didn’t have those things sort of front and center in what was found for immediate action,” Williams said.

According to Williams, the Trial Court will be investing more than $300 million into the Hampden County Courthouse, mostly in Phase 2 of the Master Plan, which will begin several years from now.

“It’s Springfield’s time right now,” Rep. Puppolo said. “This building certainly has outlived its usefulness and, more importantly, outlived its safeness.”

Physical Testing

The employee report mentions physically testing people who work in the courthouse for “heavy metals.” Williams said the trial court is working to coordinate blood and urine tests for all employees.

“One of the recommendations is to have an occupational health professional to coordinate counseling employees on next steps,” Williams explained. “We think blood and urine samples should be done in that framework. Then, we can have a health professional receive those results, aggregate them, and tell if there are patterns.”

Still, employees say their health concerns are serious, and they are being “minimized or ignored” by the State Trial Court.

Representative Puppulo is now calling for a meeting between Springfield lawmakers, and the State’s Trial Court officials to discuss these health concerns. As of this publishing, a date for this meeting has not been set.

“I don’t think they (The Trial Court) are trying to brush anything under the rug. I think they realize it’s a significant problem, but it’s also a significant problem to deal with,” Puppolo said.

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