Cabling installation suspect in sick building syndrome

Editor`s Note: In the June 1995 issue (page 69), we reported on the cabling installation at the new Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles building in Roxbury, MA. This follow-up report, excerpted from The Boston Globe, discusses subsequent problems encountered in the building that should be noted by cabling contractors and network managers.

Editor`s Note: In the June 1995 issue (page 69), we reported on the cabling installation at the new Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles building in Roxbury, MA. This follow-up report, excerpted from The Boston Globe, discusses subsequent problems encountered in the building that should be noted by cabling contractors and network managers.

When, in April 1994, the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles moved to a new nine-story building, the Ruggles Center in Roxbury, workers almost immediately began to complain about health problems. This summer, after 500 of the Registry`s 640 employees became ill over a 15-month period, the organization moved back to its old Nashua Street location while the state, various contractors, consultants and a fireproofing manufacturer argue over who should foot the bill--which is currently running at $14.2 million, according to The Boston Globe. One contributor to the problem may have been the installation of the building`s telecommunications cabling network.

Several environmental consultants have inspected the building, and their chief suspect for the "sick building" syndrome at the Ruggles Center is mineral wool fibers from a commonly used fireproofing product called Cafco. Billed by its manufacturer, Isolatek International, as "the most widely used fireproofing in the world," Cafco is sprayed on steel support beams in skyscrapers to keep them from buckling in a fire.

Isolatek president Charles D. Santomeno has defended his company`s product, saying, "Based upon our long-term experience with our mineral wool, we do not believe that it is a factor in sick-building syndrome." The manufacturer, however, has begun its own investigation of the problem.

This type of fireproofing material is supposed to remain attached to the beams for as long as a building stands, but recent tests conducted at the Ruggles Center show that its strength has deteriorated markedly since it was sprayed on. One problem thought to have contributed to this deterioration is high humidity, caused when the landlord tried to improve air quality by increasing the intake of outside air into the building. Humidity is also blamed for an odor problem noted by several Registry employees.

Another culprit is believed to be the open plenum space above the ceiling. Air circulates freely in the air space above the suspended ceilings on each floor until it is pumped into work areas. Such an open plenum is acceptable according to construction standards, but environmental experts see it as creating problems.

"Name one good thing that is above the ceiling tile," says Frank Parker, an engineer with Environmental Resources Management Group (Albany, NY). "There is fireproofing, dust, wires--and yet you are dragging all your air from there. You are asking for problems."

It is speculated that moisture and other factors loosened the fireproofing, which then fell on the ceiling tiles. From there it filtered through the cracks between tiles and around light fixtures, to land in chunks on desks and to spread a layer of dust around the building.

The building`s owner, Metropolitan/ Columbia Plaza Venture (Boston, MA), has blamed later construction, including the installation of a cabling system, as contributing to the air-quality problem. Thomas J. Mahon, president of Mahon Communications Corp. (Boston, MA), acknowledges that his installers cut through fireproofing in installing the building`s cable network, but he claims that Beacon Construction did the same thing when it put in the power cables. Beacon says, however, that it patched its penetrations, while Mahon`s workers did not.

Currently there is no established standard for acceptable levels of mineral wool fibers in the workplace, even though at least one university study has shown a significant correlation between mineral wool in office dust and reports of sick-building syndrome. What is clear, however, is that the cases of skin irritation and rashes; eye, nose and throat irritation; troubled breathing and occupational asthma reported by employees of the Massachusetts Registry were serious. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has reported that the extent of symptoms at the Ruggles Center was higher than in any other sick building the agency has investigated anywhere in the United States.

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