County faces state probe on lead level in Lawrenceville building

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The Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry will investigate an employee's complaint about highly elevated lead dust levels at an Allegheny County Health Department building, which could pose serious health risks.

Nina Ewall, an inspector in the county's Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, filed a complaint requesting the investigation Tuesday afternoon. She claims that lead dust levels in Building One of the department's Lawrenceville office complex, where she works with about two dozen county employees, pose a health hazard that has not been addressed in a timely manner by the department.

She said "wipe sample" tests done since February have found extremely high levels of lead in the dust on a variety of second and third floor office windowsills in the almost 90-year-old, three-story brick building at the corner of Penn Avenue and 40th Street, where renovations have been dragging on for more than five years. She said supervisors have known about the findings since August.

"My co-workers and I deserve to be in a clean, safe, healthy work environment," Ms. Ewall wrote in her four-page complaint. "As a public health organization, we should be a model for our community to follow. I find it absurd to be inspecting houses for lead and requiring remediation in the course of my duties when my own agency finds that such levels are acceptable for its own employees."

Ms. Ewall said in the complaint that following a December Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article detailing the high lead dust levels she found in the offices, co-workers told her of health problems -- including high blood pressure, digestive problems, neurological problems and behavioral issues -- that reflect the symptoms of lead poisoning in adults.

"While these complaints are anecdotal, because they are made in conjunction with known lead exposure, they should be investigated," she wrote in the complaint. "At a minimum, all workers should have blood tests."

Dr. Bruce Dixon, executive director of the county Health Department, said he's not convinced the dust in the Clack Health Center's old buildings poses a risk for the adult workers.

"If Labor and Industry wants to come in and look around I'm happy to have them, but I don't think it's a big problem," he said. "The program (where Ms. Ewall works) is called the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program because that's where the problem is. By and large adults don't have overt effects from lead exposure."

Other experts disagree and recent research shows that adults can have serious health problems due to lead exposure.

The lead tests done by Ms. Ewall in the second and third floor offices of Building One found lead dust levels of up to 32,800 micrograms per square foot -- 150 times higher than the 250 micrograms per square foot that would trigger a remediation and cleaning recommendation in a residence. The highest lead dust level -- 337,000 micrograms per square foot or more than 1,300 times higher than the residential threshold -- was detected in August 2009 on a window sill in lead program's second floor office by Ms. Ewall's supervisor Jeff Jozwiak, who could not be reached for comment.

All the tests done by Ms. Ewall and Mr. Jozwiak were analyzed and reported by the Pennsylvania Health Department's Division of Chemistry and Toxicology laboratory in Exton, Chester County. She said a supervisor, Bruce Good, recently told her to stop doing those tests in Building One and elsewhere in the seven-building Clack Health Center complex.

Ms. Ewall also said in the complaint that she's done lead tests using the county's X-Ray Florescence or XRF machine on walls in Building One and Building Five that found lead levels 10 times higher than the federal health standard.

The complaint said the high lead dust levels are likely caused by the poor condition, maintenance and cleaning of the old buildings. Problems include leaking roofs, falling plaster and chipped paint, plus window replacement work that has dragged on for more than five years.

Kevin Evanto, Allegheny County spokesman, said Tuesday that because of the issues raised about lead contamination the public works director has been instructed to conduct an evaluation of all Clack Health Center buildings, including the Childhood Lead Prevention Program offices and all of Building One.

"We want them to tell us if we can seal the lead issue with paint and sealant or if we need to do remediation," Mr. Evanto said. "We're going to get someone out there to look at the situation and come up with a plan to address it.

"It's something of a concern to our employees and we want to address it to allay those concerns."

David Smith, a state Department of Labor and Industry spokesman, said the department will have its inspectors on site in Lawrenceville "soon," but because it's considered an open investigation, declined to say how long the inspection will take, how it will be done or what remedies are possible.


Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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