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By John Brown
Arizona Daily Wildcat
January 15, 1998

Med school workers sue Regents

Five former UA College of Medicine employees have filed suit against the Arizona Board of Regents, alleging they were wrongly fired because they were unable to work after being exposed to formaldehyde.

Kevin McHugh, Mary Gibson, Susan Greco, Gayle Sumida and David Weintraub filed the lawsuit in Pima County Superior Court Dec. 8. The employees are seeking an unspecified amount of compensatory damages for lost income and emotional distress, said their attorney, Don Awerkamp.

All the employees did computer work in the college and were terminated from their positions Dec. 31, 1996 - more than three years after their initial contact with the chemical, Awerkamp said.

The exposed employees were removed from their jobs under the Medical Removal Act, a law that relocates employees exposed to the gas or puts them on medical leave while doctors decide when they can return to work, Awerkamp said.

All five contend the university failed to adequately accommodate them after their severe formaldehyde reactions disallowed them to continue work, he said.

"Instead, they fooled around for years," Awerkamp said. "No one wanted to take responsibility to do the right thing."

But UA attorney Lynne Wood said the university eventually terminated the employees because they did not return to their jobs after leaving for medical reasons.

The university made several improvements to the employees' workplaces and offered them other jobs, which were refused, Wood said.

"Our position is that we tried to work with these people, but they were never able to do the job," Wood said. "They weren't fired."

Wood said the UA let the employees go because they had been on long-term disability insurance for three years, and it appeared none of them were willing to come back to work.

Herb Wagner, UA's Risk Management assistant director, said the employees also refused to be examined by a university-suggested doctor for a second opinion on their condition.

In 1992, anatomy department head Dr. Robert S. McCuskey became concerned about medical students' formaldehyde exposure while working with cadavers in the gross anatomy lab, said Frank Demer, senior industrial hygienist for the Department of Risk Management and Safety.

McCuskey's concern prompted Risk Management to conduct extensive monitoring of the ventilation system.

The anatomy lab was in an area of the building with a ventilation system that was recirculating small amounts of the chemical back to other parts of the building, Demer said.

The amount of formaldehyde in the building's air flow, however, was so minute it could not be detected by instruments, he said.

No one even noticed the chemical in the air until an embalmer decided to add an evergreen scent to the formaldehyde later in 1992.

"For 15 years nobody noticed until he started putting odor in it," Demer said.

Soon after the scent was added, several employees began complaining about throat irritation, wheezing, dizziness and burning, itching and tearing eyes -all symptoms of formaldehyde exposure.

The complaints sparked an investigation by the Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health, which fined the UA $1,890 for 18 violations involving excessive formaldehyde levels and other safety codes.

About 20 UA College of Medicine employees filed injury reports in 1993, claiming exposure to the chemical made them ill.

The college made several improvements since 1992 and has not been fined since, Demer said.

"I'm here to protect the workers," Demer said. "I did what I could. I think things are pretty good now."

Awerkamp said his clients have been unable to work because they suffer from multiple chemical sensitivity. The condition can produce a variety of symptoms - tiredness, headaches and abdominal distress -when a person with the affliction is exposed to synthetic items like new carpeting, bug spray, perfume and cleaning products, said Jude McNally, assistant director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Center.

McNally said the reactions people have to exposure vary, depending on the individual's sensitivity to the gas.

"Historically, some people have had reactions (at low concentration levels)," he said. "Some could have throat irritation, respiratory problems or wheezing."

McNally said having those symptoms, however, does not necessarily mean formaldehyde has become a toxin to that person.

"Dust makes some people sneeze," but it does not mean it is harmful, he said.

Awerkamp said although his clients' reactions have varied, the symptoms have been too severe for all of them to work.

"Some may be like me when I'm around a cat and have their eyes water," he said.

But scientific evidence has failed to support multiple chemical sensitivity as an organic basis, McNally said.

"MCS is at best a psychological factor," he said.

He said research has shown that individuals put in a room and falsely told they are being exposed chemicals experience severe symptoms.

But when the same people put on a mask that pumps the gas directly to them, they have no reaction, McNally said.

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