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Feds find potential hazard at jail

(Published October 9, 2000)

By KATHRYN SINZINGER

Staff Writer

A battle is brewing between city officials and the union representing corrections officers at the D.C. Jail over the time it will take to correct potential health problems recently documented by local and federal inspectors who were called in after a jail employee contracted a near-fatal case of Legionnaireís disease this summer.

While D.C. corrections officials maintain there is "no evidence" that Officer Alan Lucas caught the disease while at work, inspectors from both the D.C. Department of Health and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported finding conditions in the part of the jail where Lucas worked to be conducive to the growth of the Legionella bacteria that cause the illness.

"If the potential is there, letís fix it Ė letís not wait until one or two more people catch it," union chairman William H. Dupree said in response to the recent NIOSH findings.

Both agenciesí inspection teams noted they turned up no Legionella bacteria at the jail and no additional cases of the disease among jail inmates or workers, but they expressed concern about poor air quality and shower water temperatures that the NIOSH team called "the optimum temperature range for Legionella growth."

Corrections officials recently launched a five-year, $22 million dollar renovation of the jail that, when completed, is expected to eliminate the health hazards cited by the agencies. But Dupree, whose Fraternal Order of Police unit represents the jailís corrections officers, said he plans to meet with corrections officials in the next two weeks to try to find a way to move officers out of work spaces that present a potential health hazard until those areas are fixed.

"Our (union) members are the only workers going into those areas," Dupree said. "They need to repair the problems immediately or move our members out of those areas and put their administrative people there.

"This is not a problem that just happened. Theyíve known about this for years, itís been documented in inspection reports and they havenít addressed it for whatever reason," Dupree said.

A Sept. 25 report issued by a NIOSH inspection team concluded: "A potential health hazard was found to exist at the D.C. Jail." NIOSH industrial hygienist Angela M. Weber and senior medical officer Dr. Mitchell Singal evaluated the jail during a two-day visit at the end of August. NIOSH is part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based in Atlanta.

While the federal inspectors said their examination of jail workersí sick leave documents "does not suggest an outbreak of Legionnaireís disease among correctional officers in mid-June," they said their examination of available medical certifications "does not, however, exclude the possibility of other cases."

"Although Legionnaireís disease can be a severe illness, it can also be mild enough that it might not result in absence from work for three days," the NIOSH report said, noting the jail does not require medical certification for shorter illnesses. "Also, the medical certification requirement would not apply to illnesses of three or four days if only one or two of those days fall on scheduled work days," the report said.

In a letter to the editor published Sept. 25 by The Common Denominator, D.C. corrections director Odie Washington stated that CDC investigators found "no evidence that indicates" Lucas contracted Legionnaires at the jail. Washington did not return calls for comment on the seeming contradiction in the NIOSH report but issued a written statement that said "the findings fail to establish a link between the reported case of Legionnaireís disease and the presence of Legionella antigen at the D.C. Jail."

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator