Ironically, the building that houses state employees who clean up contaminated sites and monitor air quality is undergoing testing to see whether it is contaminated from previous uses.

Some of the employees at the old National Guard Armory on Last Chance Gulch are showing slightly elevated blood lead levels, persistent itching or other odd symptoms that they suspect may be caused by chronic exposure to lead, mold or other volatile organic chemicals known as VOCs. The building previously was home to an Army National Guard shooting range and a diesel mechanic shop in the basement, and around 2005 mold had been removed from one part of the building.

“We met on Friday to talk to a toxicologist and will go back to the (state) General Services division to put together a plan to investigate whether there may be some problems,” said Jenny Chambers, the remediation division administrator for the state Department of Environmental Quality. “The great thing is this is the nature of what the staff that works in this building does, so we pulled a team together from this building to put together a plan to do some sampling.”

She added that they don’t have any immediate concerns that would involve moving employees out of the building, but they may institute an ambient air monitoring plan and increase monitoring of employees’ health – many are typically screened due to the hazardous waste sites where they do cleanup work.

Because of the former uses, dust from lead bullets fired at the shooting range or vapors from the diesel shop could have wafted through the building throughout the years, building up on walls, shelves and in the heating and cooling systems.

The building is owned by the state Department of Administration and Doug Olson, a facilities manager, said based on history documents from the military, it appears a major “wipe down and washing of walls” was done years ago.

“I don’t really think there is anything involved with the shooting range,” Olson said. “We have these kinds of indoor air quality concerns in quite a few of our buildings. It just so happened to be a shooting range in there.”

But David Bowers, a DEQ environmental science specialist, wants to be sure the building is safe. He said his symptoms began shortly after he moved into his second-floor office in the Armory building in December 2003. It started with chronic sinus infections. He sneezes frequently, especially when he first gets to work in the morning. He often gets headaches, and becomes fatigued in the afternoon. When he’s been out of the office for three or four days, the problems subside, but resume when he returns to work.

Bowers said he’s keeping an open mind, and that perhaps it’s not the building but something else affecting his health. Still, he’s pleased to be on a newly formed committee to look into whether there’s a problem with the building.

“I’m frustrated because I’m having symptoms and issues with my health,” Bowers said. “I’m trying to sort this out personally – is it the building or something else? But there are a number of potential reasons the problem could be with the building.

“I want peace of mind one way or another, and that’s what I expressed when I first approached management and sent out an email in the first part of August.”

He noted that in his line of work, when they come upon a building that’s being investigated for possible contamination issues, they first look at the history of its use to ascertain whether it poses a public safety hazard. Along with the former gun range and diesel shop in the basement, he said a 2003 report when the Department of Revenue was housed here showed problems with the “HVAC” or air circulation system.

“They moved out in 2003; I can’t say it was because of that report but it wasn’t favorable regarding the HVAC system,” Bower said.

His co-worker, Shellie Haaland, is a DEQ reclamation specialist who said that when she started working in the dimly lit Armory basement in 2008 – which she refers to as “the dungeon” – her skin started itching. It also itches when she turns on the heat or air conditioning in her vehicle and when she comes in contact in her laundry room at home with clothes she’s worn to work.

“They told me it was dry air; they tested but the volume of the sample was smaller than my head,” Haaland said. “It didn’t really represent an eight-hour day in the dungeon.

“They put a humidifier in my room and my lungs immediately seized up,” she added. “I shut it off and left and told them it was affecting my health and I wouldn’t stay down there any more.”

DEQ found her an office on the upper level of the four-story structure, but Haaland said she brought the problem with her in the form of files and paperwork. Every time she touches it, her skin started to itch.

“Maybe I’m just sensitive, or maybe I’m the canary in the coal mine,” Haaland said.

She’s concerned that if there is lead circulating in the building, it may lead to chronic exposure, which is different than the acute exposure that shows up in blood tests.

About half a dozen DEQ employees in the building have tested positive for lead in their blood, but it’s below 10 micrograms per deciliter, which is a cause for concern in youth. Bowers and Chambers say that the traces of lead could just be a result of DEQ employee’s occupations – they regularly come in contact with contaminated soil and hazardous wastes – or from exposure elsewhere.

But like Haaland, Bowers added that it could be a move toward chronic exposure, which can lead to different health problems in different people. That’s why he pushed for an investigation.

“I want to be part of this group that’s investigating what should have been done a long time ago,” Bowers said. “I want a good, programmatic and thorough investigation of the building that’s based on good science.”

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com.

Follow Eve on Twitter@IR_EveByron.

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