San Francisco Bay Guardian - March 5, 1997
By Savannah Blackwell
Most mornings John Ortiz wakes up coughing. He has trouble breathing. He sneezes frequently. His ears often ache, and his voice is a scratchy rasp.
“Sometimes you cough and cough and you can’t stop,” Ortiz told the Bay Guardian. “And in the mornings, when you spit up, [the phlegm] is the color of charcoal.”
Ortiz, a forklift driver who has worked at Moscone Center – San Francisco’s belowground convention hall – since it opened in 1981, says his chronic ailments result from unloading cargo in an environment polluted by truck exhaust and propane fumes.
His complaints are not unusual among union workers at Moscone Center. Between Aug. 8 and Dec. 20, 1996, 65 Moscone workers complained to the state Department of Public Health Services of chronic problems including nosebleeds, nausea, headaches, sore throats, laryngitis, dizziness, and fatigue. In a Jan. 16, 1997, report that discusses the complaints, Elizabeth Katz, associate industrial hygienist with the Occupational Health branch of the DPH, wrote that the workers’ symptoms were consistent with carbon monoxide poisoning and exposure to vehicle exhaust.
The health hazard occurs, the report found, most when workers are setting up or dismantling conventions and trade shows. That’s when trucks line up in an underground tunnel, waiting to be loaded or unloaded. According to workers interviewed by the Bay Guardian and workers’ rights advocate Jacqui O’Sullivan the truck drivers frequently leave their engines running while they wait. And at the same time teamsters are driving propane-powered forklifts used to load or unload the trucks, many of which drive onto the exhibit floor. Those activities contribute to a buildup of carbon monoxide, which along with other harmful chemicals is found in diesel and propane exhaust. Moving shows in or out often requires overtime, increasing workers’ exposure to harmful chemicals.
“I think there’s a lot of strong evidence that there is enough carbon monoxide exposure that it’s causing symptoms in people,” Katz told the Bay Guardian.
Dr. Lewell Brenneman, a San Francisco immunologist who frequently works with patients exposed to harmful chemicals, has treated one former Moscone worker and has reviewed documents detailing current Moscone illnesses. He put it this way: “They’ve got a whole lot of carbon monoxide, a number of toxic substances down there. And these people are being exposed to them for long periods of time every day.”
“When there’s a smoking gun laying there and a dead person with a bullet in them, you connect it up,” Brenneman said. “They are 40 feet underground and the ventilation is horrible.”
John Pascu used to drive a forklift at Moscone Center. But recently he joined another union to change jobs because he was plagued by respiratory ailments and other aggravations. He joined Sign Display and Allied Crafts Union Local 510, which sets up displays at the center. Pascu told the Bay Guardian he suffered from irritated and itchy eyes, an inability to breathe, nausea, and ringing in the ears.
“I was losing my voice…. I lost 50 pounds in eight months,” he said. “I was born in San Francisco and it looks like I’m going to die in the Moscone Center.”
Pascu’s and Ortiz’s ailments seem typical of what many Moscone workers, particularly forklift drivers, experience.
“This is not a little problem,” O’Sullivan, of Compensation Awareness Reform and Education, told the Bay Guardian. “And it’s life-threatening.”
No air, no windows
The physical layout of the building, which was mandated by voters to be constructed belowground, plays a large role in the problem, according to Joel Ventresca, a member of the environmental commission appointed by the Board of Supervisors.
“You have two city blocks of underground facilities. There are no windows. It’s a confined space. And inside this space you have generators of air pollution. Bad air is circulating around the building and the employees are breathing it in,” Ventresca told the Bay Guardian.
Ventresca and former Moscone worker Justine Weldon requested that the state step in to investigate the situation in April 1996, after Weldon brought concerns about the convention center’s air quality to Ventresca’s attention. “All this money was spent to put this thing underground for aesthetic reasons, but it has created a facility that is now poisoning its workforce,” Ventresca said.
“Anytime you’re working in a closed facility that has no windows, that’s underground, you’re going to have concerns about air quality,” Michael Hardeman, business manager for Local 510, told the Bay Guardian. Hardeman said he believes the ventilation at the center has recently improved “100 percent.”
But in a recent afternoon visit to Moscone Center, the Bay Guardian interviewed about 20 workers, mostly forklift drivers, who complained of problems ranging from vomiting blood to suffering from headaches. More than a dozen trucks with engines running lined the underground tunnel connecting the loading docks, where workers are most likely to experience carbon monoxide exposure when working overtime, according to a recent study by Crawford Risk Control Services, which was hired by Spectacor Management Group, the manager of Moscone Center. After two and a half hours spent interviewing workers at the center, the effects of the air became noticeable: chest pain, stinging eyes, and a cough.
“Every time I work there I get sick,” Earl Mendez, a forklift driver who speaks with a rasp, told the Bay Guardian. “I have chronic sinus problems. A lot of guys, we lose our voices. And you know, the never warned us about it.”
Spectacor officials say they are doing everything they can to improve conditions at the center. They have recently posted signs on the loading docks warning of toxic substances (though O’Sullivan said they are too high up on the wall to see easily). They are studying the ventilation system. They tied streamers to the fans so workers can see if they are on or off. They are looking into replacing propane-powered forklifts with electric forklifts, as the state recommended. They are working on another state recommendation to install carbon monoxide monitors in work areas. And they recently hired a worker to advise truckers to turn off their engines while underground.
“We are doing everything we can … trying to get our credibility back with the workers,” Tim Comey, Spectacor’s chief engineer, told the Bay Guardian. Comey said that he did not know of workers’ complaints until last summer. “My perception is that [the workers] may have been complaining to their supervisors and it wasn’t getting passed on. A lot of things probably fell through the cracks.”
‘I’ll be dead anyway’
But records obtained by the Bay Guardian show that the city conducted air quality tests in Moscone in 1991 and 1993, and that in 1993 Hardeman advised Spectacor officials of complaints among workers. Workers complained to officials during the 1991 and 1993 investigations that ventilation filters had not been changed until right before inspection.
One suggestion from Ventresca – preventing trucks from driving down into the tunnel – was called “not feasible” by Spectator spokesperson Keli’i Brown.
Workers and their supporters are not convinced that Spectacor will solve the problem anytime soon.
“By the time this thing gets solved, I’ll be dead anyway,” Pascu said.
According to the state’s Katz, the ventilation problem at the center has not been solved yet.
The state did not do any independent carbon monoxide testing, Katz said, because it did not have the resources. Both Ventresca and Brenneman recommend that independent testing be conducted and that workers be tested for exposure to chemicals other than carbon monoxide.
A 1991 study by the San Francisco public health department in which two workers were tested for carbon monoxide found that one of the workers was exposed to levels higher that what is deemed acceptable by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (CalOSHA). Tests conducted by Crawford in October 1996, when there was a moderate amount of activity at the center, did not find tested workers’ average exposures to be higher than the CalOSHA limit of 25 parts per million.
The common practice in testing is to consider the average exposure during an allotted period of time. According to Crawford’s October study, at times during work hours, workers were exposed to levels significantly higher than the CalOSHA limit. A Crawford study conducted in January during a high level of activity at the center found that three workers who labored 12 hours or more were exposed to levels above the CalOSHA limit. Twenty-six percent of the samples were higher than the limit recommended by the state health department (10 parts per million).
But Brenneman warned that that kind of test cannot be trusted to accurately gauge damage to workers’ systems. They do not reveal the effects of carbon monixide over extended periods of time, he said, and averaging exposure levels is not representative of the degree of danger.
“That’s like if a person went on a shooting spree, killed one person, wounded three others, and saying that on average there were minor injuries.” Brenneman said, adding that state standards are generally higher than the levels that actually harm people. “Carbon monoxide poisoning is well documented to be cumulative…. As far as health and science is concerned, these kinds of tests are meaningless.” ■