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40 Citicorp employees claim illness

July 03, 1997

By TERRY TALBERT

Staff Writer

About 40 Citicorp Credit Services workers have filed worker's compensation claims saying they got sick at work after breathing fumes from a raw sewage backup and chemicals used to clean it up.

The workers said sewage backed up under the first floor of Citicorp Building No. 2 north of Hagerstown on Sept. 23 and again on May 2.

Several of the workers who talked about their illnesses said they have tried to return to work, only to get sick again. They said they are seeing specialists in Montgomery County, Md., who have told them they are victims of exposure to chemicals in the workplace.

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Some said they're having trouble making ends meet, and said Citicorp has cut off their temporary disability payments after sending them to other doctors who tell them they aren't sick.

Citicorp spokesman Phil Kelly acknowledged there was a sewage backup, but he wouldn't talk about the workers' claims.

"We had a problem with sewage that backed up, and there was a cleanup and that's all we have to say about it. This is a legal case," he said.

A Washington County Health Department official downplayed the Sept. 23 incident.

"My understanding is that it was simply a blocked sewer line, and the subsequent cleanup apparently offended some workers," said David Barnhart, assistant director of environmental health.

Barnhart referred to workers' health problems as "alleged illnesses."

A representative of the firm that handles worker's comp claims for Citicorp said disability payments to some workers have been cut off because of differing medical opinions between the doctors who are treating the workers and the doctors Citicorp sent them to for evaluation.

Claims representative Gail Fenton of Traveler's Property and Casualty said she wouldn't comment further.

One of the doctors treating the workers said their illnesses are real.

"Some have respiratory injuries, and some have developed occupational asthma. Some have gastrointestinal complaints. Several are developing arthritis. The most impressive injuries are attention and memory deficits, and severe headaches," said Dr. P. Steven Macedo.

Macedo said what the workers are suffering from is "very similar to Desert Storm syndrome, when they were actually inhaling smoke from burning oilfields. It's classic exposure to petrochemicals."

Macedo said he's told a number of his patients not to return to work. "Once you develop a chemical sensitivity, you become more sensitive with subsequent exposure. It gets to the point where even traces can trigger a reaction."

Macedo said Traveler's has refused to pay for one specific treatment he wants to use.

"Significantly, I wanted to do cognitive retraining in some cases, and they've refused. They are blocking the delivery of health care."

Ed Giffin, 32, said he and his wife Robin, who also works at Citicorp, both got sick after the September sewer problem.

After the cleanup, Giffin said he had blisters in his mouth and throat and had difficulty breathing. Giffin said he went to the emergency room and was told to stay out of work for a few days.

Within an hour of returning to work, he said, he was sick.

Giffin said he has lost his sense of smell and taste, and has short-term memory loss, chronic sinus infections, joint pain, and "chemical bronchitis."

Giffin said his wife Robin had a severe skin rash, has lost her sense of smell, and has memory problems.

Deb Early, 40, said she had perfect attendance for two years before she became sick.

Early said she had chemical burns of the nose and throat after the September backup. She took a few days off and went back. She said she lasted a week after the May incident before leaving work for good.

Early said she now has migraines, fibromyalgia, chemical deterioration of her lungs, and chronic asthma.

Kim Brown, 48, said she got sick after the September incident. "I ended up with chemical burns to my skin, nose, mouth, throat and lungs. I lost my sense of smell. I have nerve damage and short-term memory loss."

She said she is developing arthritis-like symptoms and joint deterioration.

Brown said she left work in December on doctor's orders. Citicorp stopped paying her on May 15, after company-recommended doctors ruled her fit to work.

She said she went back and within minutes had difficulty breathing. "I'm a single mother who has worked a long time to keep a home for my kids. I have a mortgage payment to make," she said.

A Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspector who went to Citicorp on Sept. 25 said in her report that 29 employees had filled out forms complaining of sickness as of Oct. 31.

Several chemicals were used to clean and deodorize the area after the sewage was removed, according to the report.

The following day, some employees complained that odors from the chemicals were adversely affecting their eyes, head, throats, nose and chest and lungs, Joyce Moylan said.

The company made attempts to ventilate the building, she said.

Employees were upset that the company "wouldn't tell them what chemicals were used, or anything about them," Moylan said. When they asked they were told not to worry, that the materials would not hurt them, she said.

MOSH records show that Citicorp was cited for violating two standards: failing to provide employees with information and training on hazardous chemicals in their work area, and failing to tell them when new hazards were introduced into their work area.

MOSH and Citicorp officials met. The second citation was lifted, and the total fine of $1,068 was rescinded, MOSH records show.

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