BURGAW — Pender County Superior Clerk of Courts Elizabeth Craver has called for the county to address reports among her staff complaining of headaches, sinus issues, and nosebleeds — an issue she referred to as the “sick building syndrome.”
She also revealed that past elected clerks have investigated health issues of court employees who had worked in the historic courthouse building, which has been shut down after Hurricane Florence caused extensive water and mold damage. Craver and her staff have been working in the nearby Judicial Annex building.
“There is something going on in this current annex that [the county] currently has us in. I have clerks with nose bleeds, headaches, sinus issues. And it’s not just one clerk – I have 14 who work for me, and it is 14 of the clerks in this building who have the symptoms,” Craver said.
READ MORE: Pender Courthouse restoration still waiting on approval from state’s historic preservation office
“Sick building syndrome”
According to Craver, an air quality assessment report in October showed high levels of Aspergillus mold, a toxigenic that can cause diseases and allergic infections when found indoors. A subsequent report in November showed low levels of the fungi, but Craver said this was likely due to the assessment performed when the air conditioning system — which she said helps transport mold spores — was turned off.
A third assessment was performed on March 29 after a meeting the day prior in which Craver told Pender Chairman George Brown of her staff’s health concerns; the report concluded that “acceptable levels of ambient airborne mold spores” were in the building.
“Once we heard these complaints from [Craver] and her staff, we immediately went out to get assessments,” Brown said.
A meeting was held yesterday to discuss the new report and Craver’s concerns, which according to Brown included officials from the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts (NCAOC), the Sheriff’s Department, and Judge Kent Harrell. Brown said the discussion indicated that low humidity levels in the Annex may be a cause of the headaches and nosebleeds.
“The report gave the building a clean bill of health,” Brown said, adding that he felt the consultants from Coastal Environmental and Inspections had indicated “there is nothing in the building that would hurt anyone.”
“The discussion today seemed to recognize the low humidity levels could be the culprit of what would cause some to have nosebleeds,” Brown said.
Although Brown was unfamiliar with the October report that showed high levels of mold in the air, he said such issues were common in buildings during the immediate aftermath of the hurricane.
Craver said the term “sick building syndrome” was used by a hygienist she brought in to observe the conditions of the Annex building, but who could not determine the exact cause of sickness.
“He said, ‘You don’t have 14 people in a building and all 14 end up with the same symptoms and conditions — and it not be something,’” Craver said.
The clerks are awaiting an official county decision to move them into the law offices of Biberstein & Nunalee, which face the now-idle courthouse from the east.
Health concerns “before and since the storm”
Although she was unable to attend, Assistant to the District Attorney Samantha Dooies acknowledged that several officials from the county and the NCAOC have made joint requests to “address the working conditions of courthouse staff in Pender County before and since the storm.”
She said that members of her staff make routine visits to the Annex courthouse.
“Their health and the health of the public visiting the courthouse remains a concern for our office,” Dooies said.
Craver said she brought the recent health concerns of her staff to county officials “because we knew that the annex and the courthouse have both been ‘sick buildings’ since long before I worked here.”
“I have been telling them that this was going on in the old courthouse since I came into office,” Craver said.
According to Craver, the past three elected head clerks of the Pender Superior Court have been investigating health issues of employees who had worked extensively inside the courthouse.
Craver said the clerks’ investigations were looking into the air quality inside the courtroom, and that mold and mildew showing up in assessments were the cause of homotropal and thyroid issues.
Brown said he is not familiar with past health assessments of the courthouse, but that many buildings in the low-lying areas of the county often hold excessive moisture.
“This building is getting close to one hundred years old,” Brown said. “That’s why we’re going to re-seal the outside of the building, re-mortar the brick: to prevent moisture from coming in between the brick like it does currently, creating moisture inside the brick, creating problems for the interior.”
Now, Craver is concerned that her staff must make consistent trips inside the closed-off courthouse to retrieve files and perform other administrative tasks.
“How is it safe for them to go in but not for the public?” Craver asked.
She said that she is unsure whether her employees’ recent health concerns are caused entirely by working inside the Annex building, trips to the courthouse, or a combination of both.
“Everyone who has worked in the Annex and the main courthouse (mainly including the district attorneys and judges) have been complaining of health concerns all along,” Craver wrote in an email Thursday.
Brown said he was told by several deputies from the sheriff’s office who work inside the building that they had not experienced any health issues.
Continued delays on courthouse repairs
The old courthouse building has sat idle for nearly seven months as county officials, insurance and FEMA representatives, architects, and state preservation officers look for agreement on the scope of mold remediation work needed to reopen the historic building.
On Monday, architect Charles Boney of the firm LS3P discussed a report he has drawn up showing four alternative levels of courthouse repairs.
“There have been a number of people looking at this thing, generating reports, and now it’s a time for action,” architect Charles Boney said.
He said assessments have been made by engineers assessing repairs for the management of hazardous materials, industrial hygiene consultants evaluating moisture and mold repairs, and environmental consultants drawing up a “moisture map” of the building.
The reports, he said, have confirmed what he has known all along: “There is moisture remaining in the walls.”
Last Friday county officials, LS3P associates, and insurance representatives reviewed the report and disagreed on the “responsibility of payment” for the repair items, according to Boney.
“At the last meeting they discussed who’s going to pay for what — FEMA, insurance, or the county,” Craver said. “So we still don’t know.”
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com