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EEOC Employees Can Now Breathe Easy

By Ed O'Keefe

The headquarters of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Northeast Washington.

EEOC employees and visitors to agency headquarters can breathe easy. Their air is safe, according to recent test results.

Roughly 500 employees and contractors complained of headaches, dizziness, coughing and respiratory issues in the months after the agency moved to its M St. NE headquarters last November.

But the building's formaldehyde and carbon dioxide levels are now acceptable, according to a memo sent to staffers on Monday by Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Acting Chairman Stuart J. Ishimaru, reporting on results of Sept. tests. (Read the complete details in the memo posted below.)

The agency will offer a voluntary health survey to employees who may still have concerns, the memo said.

Higher levels of formaldehyde are common in new or newly renovated buildings that can emit, or "off-gas" the various chemicals used in construction.

Though the gas has a strong odor, employees did not any unusual odors, and most staff had reported no problems, according to colleague Joe Davidson, who wrote about the issue in April.

>>> OFFICE OF THE ACTING CHAIRMAN 10/5/2009 1:37 PM >>>

Colleagues -

We have received a September 23rd letter from the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) with an air quality update for our building. The GSA, the Occupational, Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have assessed EEOC’s air quality issues based on a review of the February, March, and May test results and our most recent testing on July 30th. This letter follows a meeting that we had with GSA, OSHA and NIOSH in July.

Previous reports have indicated that formaldehyde and carbon dioxide (CO2) exceeded applicable guidelines in some areas of our building. Formaldehyde levels for the July 2009 test ranged from 0.013 parts per million (ppm) to 0.045 ppm. These levels are well below the OSHA 0.75 ppm Permissible Exposure Level (PEL) and below the 0.10 ppm PEL recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and NIOSH in a jointly published guide. NIOSH advises that typical office building exposure guidelines are between 0.05 ppm and 0.10 ppm and NIOSH recommends a level of 0.05 ppm for its own buildings. All of our current readings are below those levels. While these guidelines differ from those previously reported, NIOSH has advised us that its standard was established in 1981 and is currently undergoing modification as explained to us at the July meeting and in a subsequent letter.

The July 2009 test results indicate that carbon dioxide (CO2) levels ranged from 486 ppm to 973 ppm, which meets the OSHA PEL of no more than 5000 ppm and the non-regulatory guideline of 1000 ppm. Additionally, the CO2 level met the American Society of Heating Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) guidance of 700 ppm differential or less between indoor and outdoor CO2 levels. The CO2 differential on the test day was 586 ppm. Temperature, humidity, airborne fiber and volatile organic compound readings also met acceptable guidelines.

GSA, OSHA and NIOSH experts agree that EEOC’s formaldehyde and CO2 levels meet both OSHA standards and NIOSH guidelines and that no further testing is required at 131 M St. NE. OSHA and NIOSH concur with the content of GSA's September 23rd letter. They now consider this matter closed. However, in accord with a recommendation made by OSHA at our July meeting, the Office of Human Resources (OHR) will make available a health survey form for employees who may still have concerns about this matter. The health survey is voluntary and any information you provide will remain confidential, except to health officials administering the survey and as used for any future referral at the employee's request. More information on this will follow.

We will post the August 24th GSA letter transmitting the July 30th test results and the September 23rd GSA letter on InSite and the NoMA blog. We will also post an August 12th letter from NIOSH which offers more technical information about the current NIOSH position on acceptable formaldehyde levels.

Thank you for your patience and cooperation while we worked to achieve satisfactory air quality.


By Ed O'Keefe  | October 6, 2009; 2:21 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Workplace Issues  
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You need to correct the statement in the article that "Roughly 500 employees and contractors complained of headaches, dizziness, coughing and respiratory issues in the months after the agency moved to its M St. NE headquarters last November." This is false.

See your earlier article which uses the word "some" when it described the number of employees or contractors who lodged complaints.

Posted by: dgal | October 7, 2009 8:04 AM | Report abuse

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