Sick office, ill workers?

Deana Stokes Sullivan
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Illness at the Registry of Deeds 'alarming,' researcher says; office to move soon

Tracy Hayley, a researcher for a private company who earns a living poring over old documents in the basement of Confederation Building, says she's seen an "alarming rate" of serious illness among her colleagues in recent years.

And she wonders if poor air quality and other occupational-health issues may be contributing factors.

"I've been here for five years and in the last four years, we have had at least 14 documented cases of cancer in a very small number of people," Hayley said.

At the Registry of Deeds, researchers can go through documents dating back to the 1800s in the basement of Confederation Building in St. John's. The Department of Government Services says the registry will move to a new location on Elizabeth Avenue later

Tracy Hayley, a researcher for a private company who earns a living poring over old documents in the basement of Confederation Building, says she's seen an "alarming rate" of serious illness among her colleagues in recent years.

And she wonders if poor air quality and other occupational-health issues may be contributing factors.

"I've been here for five years and in the last four years, we have had at least 14 documented cases of cancer in a very small number of people," Hayley said.

Thirty-five to 40 private researchers work in the Registry of Deeds every weekday, along with a small number of provincial government employees.

"The research material is all kept in a vault, so we're in the back, whereas the government employees sit up front in an open area at desks," Hayley said.

The air is recirculated, she said, and often stagnant.

Since Christmas, Hayley said, there have been four new cases of cancer among the researchers. One person has since died, another had surgery and is recovering and a third is undergoing extensive treatments for a cancerous tumour, she said. The fourth person recently had surgery to remove a tumour, and as of Wednesday, was recovering in hospital.

Hayley said another man recently took ill with a serious lung condition and is in hospital on life support.

"There are a number of people who have been affected with stomach, esophagus and throat and nose cancers. There have been other forms, such as skin and cervical cancers, so it's not all one specific type, but the statistics are just alarming at this stage," Hayley said.

The researchers, who obtain information from old deeds and documents for law firms and other clients, sit in groups at small tables.

"Every one of the tables right now has (had someone) directly affected over the last couple of years," Hayley said.

The cause of the illnesses is a mystery, but Hayley said there have been concerns about asbestos being removed from the basement in recent years, and a halon system, which releases a chemical when fire alarms go off to remove oxygen from the air in the event of a fire.

At least once in the last six months, the fire alarm went off and everyone had to be evacuated, Hayley said.

It's her understanding that halon use has been eliminated in many parts of the country. It contributes to the depletion of the ozone layer.

"I think we're the only spot in this building that still has it, but it's still there because we're working with archival materials," Hayley said.

A provincial Department of Environment document - "Policy Directive: Strategic Plans for the Disposal of Halons," dated May 11, 1998 - references the phasing out of halon systems in this province and points out that many alternatives are available.

The document cites "Ozone Depleting Substance Regulations" that came into effect in 1997 and states, "The regulation places the responsibility on industry to evaluate alternatives based on effectiveness and environmental impact.

"The Newfoundland government is encouraging companies to evaluate their need for halon systems, to determine how much is really necessary for each application, and to develop a strategy for eliminating their use. It is important to note that new halons have not been manufactured or imported into Canada since Jan. 1, 1994."

Hayley said there's a lot of dust and dirt in the area where she works and in the five years she's been there, she's only seen a cleaning crew twice.

One person was away for seven years or more and when she came back her shoes were exactly as she had left them, "never disturbed, never cleaned," Hayley said.

A spokesperson for Government Services said the department has been aware that there have been health concerns, but said it hasn't been able to link them to air quality. She also confirmed that a halon system is still in use in the registry.

However, she said the registry will soon move into the former Newfoundland Liquor Corp. building on Elizabeth Avenue.

"We are still using the halon system, but we do recognize that this is not the current standard for fire protection for documents stored at the registry. Given that we are scheduled to move into the new building - which is built to all current standards and does not use a halon system - on Elizabeth Avenue later this fall, it was not economical to put in place a new system (in the interim)," the government spokesperson said.

dss@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Confederation Building, Department of Environment, Government Services Newfoundland Liquor

Geographic location: Elizabeth Avenue, Newfoundland, Canada

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Recent comments

  • DeeBee
    July 02, 2010 - 13:29

    Is anyone really surprised by this? As the person above me commented, most workplace safety committees are concerned about the obvious stuff, but how often is the air and water quality in the workplace checked? I mean, how old are some of the buildings in St. John's? These buildings get a free pass from new regulations passed by city hall, but I bet if they were examined closely for dangerous substances like lead & asbestos, no one would even walk into half of them, let alone spend an 8-hour work day there.

  • R
    July 02, 2010 - 13:28

    Predictable government response. They were aware that there were health problems but they could not link those problems to air quality. The response from the government spokesperson (who should have ben named) is typical government mindset. The spokesperson indicates now that there is no need to worry because the archives and staff are being moved to another building. The NEW location will do very little to help the workers who ALREADY HAVE CANCER. Why do Newfoundlanders continue to let these officals be elected?

  • An Observer
    July 02, 2010 - 13:20

    Funny how in my workplace there are regular inspections by our volunteer (but government mandated) OH&S committee who seem to focus on the number of boxes of paper are in the storage room, while the air quality in some of the ground floor offices doesn't seem to be fit to breathe. Normally, when waiting for government solutions I'd advise Joe Q Public to not hold his breath. In THIS case, however, it may be much safer to do just that... hold your breath.

  • Mike
    July 02, 2010 - 13:20

    Halon was banned around 1991 in Ontario.
    Causes cancer and other respiratory problems.

  • Blair
    July 02, 2010 - 13:14

    The scum and parasites accumulated in that place over the years would be enough to make anyone sick.

  • Frank
    July 02, 2010 - 13:11

    It is very interesting to read this article because it is not just happening around the Confederation Building. This is happening around our hospitals, schools, churches and recreational facilities. There are no doubt many reasons for the many health problems.

    They always said that dust and dirt won,t kill you but cleaning solutions and poor ventilation will. You can talk to any public service employee who have worked in government offices and schools across canada where cleaning solutions are used, they never felt well at work and after they got home from work. There are many who don,t feel well at work but they don,t complain. There was one hospital that had the same carpets on the floors for 25 years, and when the carpet was removed the staff got ill because of the years of bacteria forming under the carpet from cleaning solutions,etc.

    There are no accurate machines that can test the quality of air to give a 100% reading that the air is clean. You often say it smells so clean around here. it,s the chemicals you breathe from solutions that makes it smell clean. Those who tesdt the air quality are not always so honest and don,t want to push a panic button. it,s a business for them as well.

    Government is in a bind because insulations, molds and chemicals in solutions are slowly killing all of us.You go to the malls, theatres and grocery stores, the chemicals are everywhere dancing around!

    Take action now as many of our friends kept quiet and are no longer with us. The workers who use the solutions to clean are the ones who suffer the most in the long run.

    Remember, molds and chemical solutions are slowly killing our children as well.

    Frank Blackwood
    Newfoundland Writer

  • DeeBee
    July 01, 2010 - 20:17

    Is anyone really surprised by this? As the person above me commented, most workplace safety committees are concerned about the obvious stuff, but how often is the air and water quality in the workplace checked? I mean, how old are some of the buildings in St. John's? These buildings get a free pass from new regulations passed by city hall, but I bet if they were examined closely for dangerous substances like lead & asbestos, no one would even walk into half of them, let alone spend an 8-hour work day there.

  • R
    July 01, 2010 - 20:16

    Predictable government response. They were aware that there were health problems but they could not link those problems to air quality. The response from the government spokesperson (who should have ben named) is typical government mindset. The spokesperson indicates now that there is no need to worry because the archives and staff are being moved to another building. The NEW location will do very little to help the workers who ALREADY HAVE CANCER. Why do Newfoundlanders continue to let these officals be elected?

  • An Observer
    July 01, 2010 - 20:04

    Funny how in my workplace there are regular inspections by our volunteer (but government mandated) OH&S committee who seem to focus on the number of boxes of paper are in the storage room, while the air quality in some of the ground floor offices doesn't seem to be fit to breathe. Normally, when waiting for government solutions I'd advise Joe Q Public to not hold his breath. In THIS case, however, it may be much safer to do just that... hold your breath.

  • Mike
    July 01, 2010 - 20:03

    Halon was banned around 1991 in Ontario.
    Causes cancer and other respiratory problems.

  • Blair
    July 01, 2010 - 19:53

    The scum and parasites accumulated in that place over the years would be enough to make anyone sick.

  • Frank
    July 01, 2010 - 19:47

    It is very interesting to read this article because it is not just happening around the Confederation Building. This is happening around our hospitals, schools, churches and recreational facilities. There are no doubt many reasons for the many health problems.

    They always said that dust and dirt won,t kill you but cleaning solutions and poor ventilation will. You can talk to any public service employee who have worked in government offices and schools across canada where cleaning solutions are used, they never felt well at work and after they got home from work. There are many who don,t feel well at work but they don,t complain. There was one hospital that had the same carpets on the floors for 25 years, and when the carpet was removed the staff got ill because of the years of bacteria forming under the carpet from cleaning solutions,etc.

    There are no accurate machines that can test the quality of air to give a 100% reading that the air is clean. You often say it smells so clean around here. it,s the chemicals you breathe from solutions that makes it smell clean. Those who tesdt the air quality are not always so honest and don,t want to push a panic button. it,s a business for them as well.

    Government is in a bind because insulations, molds and chemicals in solutions are slowly killing all of us.You go to the malls, theatres and grocery stores, the chemicals are everywhere dancing around!

    Take action now as many of our friends kept quiet and are no longer with us. The workers who use the solutions to clean are the ones who suffer the most in the long run.

    Remember, molds and chemical solutions are slowly killing our children as well.

    Frank Blackwood
    Newfoundland Writer