The war of contradictions over the Flagler Sheriff’s Operations Center continues, with the latest word today in the form of a report, commissioned by Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly, that undermines last month’s findings that the building was safe.
This latest report, far from the last word on the issue, lends credence to sheriff’s employees’ claims that the report issued from the county’s side in July is not valid, but it does so only based on an analysis of the previous report’s data, not on new testing or new medical evidence. And it contradicts findings by Centers for Disease Control officials who have also reviewed the July report and did not fault its methodology.
But the author of the Staly-commissioned report also concluded that the building is not at all a lost cause, that mitigating its problems and conducting further testing would not be expensive, and that a deep cleaning–just what the county carried out last week–was a necessary step along the way, before that additional but far more thorough testing.
“I think things can be improved to the point where the building can be reoccupied,” Robert Sweeney, author of the report, said in an interview this afternoon. Only Monday evening Staly had told his staff that if it’s up to him, he will advocate against returning to the Operations Center, which was evacuated in June after more than two dozen of its 70-some employees reported health problems commonly associated with sick-building syndrome.
Science and analysis, however, have so far played second fiddle to the psychology, politics and mistrust fueling the Sheriff’s Operations Center controversy.
Five weeks ago Flagler County government released a report it had commissioned from an engineering firm that concluded there was no mold or other hazardous-air issue at the Sheriff’s Operations Center, and that the building, evacuated in June, was safe to re-occupy.
Staly and his employees have so doubted the validity of the report that county and sheriff’s officials have arranged for a delegation of Centers for Disease Control scientists to visit the building and speak with employees in early September, while the sheriff commissioned a report of his own from Sweeney, a 77-year-old retired scientist living in Flagler Beach who approached Staly and proposed to review all available documents on the building. The two men have not known each other beyond the fact that they attend the same church. Staly contracted with Sweeney to produce the report, paying him $5,000.
Today, the sheriff released that report–a review of the July report and previous testing late last year and of various documents and emails associated with the building controversy going back to its purchase by the county in 2013.
The 10-page report (with a list of the title of the documents submitted for review filling three and a half pages) focuses almost exclusively on last year’s testing by H2H, after the problem first emerged–and when mold was discovered in at least two rooms–and the June testing conducted by Zdenek Hejzlar, the consultant at Fort Myers-based Engineering Systems Inc. (The county paid Hejzlar $18,000 for one day of testing and subsequent analysis.)
Sweeney’s essential conclusions are these: that the scope of Hejzlar’s testing was too limited in time and samples; that Hejzlar’s testing suffered from “major bias with regards to the size of material collected,” because Hejzlar did not test for smaller, fractured or “desiccated” mold fragments that nevertheless impacts human health; and that there were inconsistencies between Hejzlar’s data and his conclusion, namely that in one room, Hejzlar had reported a level of “volatile organic compounds” that was well within range of causing health discomfort.
“This re-examination and evaluation of the test results justifies the Flagler County Sheriff’s decision to pull his staff out of the Operation Center and not reoccupy until the building is medically safe,” Sweeney concluded.
The conclusion nevertheless rests on an assumption rather than any available data that mold fragments are the culprits of employees’ health problems. “What you have to do is see what are the primary causes of mold toxicity in humans, what has been the causes,” Sweeney said when asked about the assumption, “and I think you’ll find in the literature that it’s very clear that it’s the small particles that are inhaled that cause symptoms that are most reported.”
The issue of mycotoxins is a key part of Sweeney’s report: “Many of those who worked in the Op Center exhibited medical symptoms that are typical for those exposed to mycotoxins,” he wrote, referring to himself in the third person. “The most likely way in which those poisons entered the bodies are those made ill was by inhalation of mold fragments. Neither ESi nor H2H measured the mold fragments that are the most likely vehicle for carrying mycotoxins into lower respiratory systems. In fact, their sampling procedure largely excluded the collection of those medically critical important particles. Therefore Dr. Sweeney rejects the statement on page 39 of their report that the Op Center is not adversely impacted with mold.”
Sweeney said three collections of samples, not one, should have been carried out in larger rooms, and that the testing should have been “repeated over several days” for more accuracy.
But as with Hejzlar’s report, Sweeney’s findings are hampered by the absence of any hard medical data about the employees, thus resulting in deductive leaps or assumptions rather than entirely empirically based conclusions: “While Dr. Sweeney has neither interviewed Op Center staff who claimed to have been made ill by working in that building nor has he conferred with any medical staff who examined these individuals,” the Sweeney report states, “the symptoms these people exhibited did correspond with those identified as being adversely affected by mycotoxins. Likewise, the percentage of staff with such symptoms is in line with what he has observed among people working in buildings with confirmed mold contamination.”
The report outlines several steps that county building officials should take, from “thoroughly” cleaning the building to upgrading the air-conditioning system, removing its ultraviolet filters, lowering the building’s ambient humidity, and placing air purifiers in certain rooms. Notably, the steps are not entirely different than those recommended by the Hejzlar report: they differ more in scope than in kind, though to some extent Sweeney makes recommendations against some of the mitigation planned after the Hejzlar report. Then the Sweeney report provides a multi-step plan for re-testing over 33 days and the test results compared with CDC standards for human occupancy before any re-occupancy is considered. That was not part of the Hejzlar recommendations.
“Hopefully something can come about so the building can be made safe and reoccupied,” Sweeney said this afternoon. “I’m sure within the realm of existing technology that can come about. But in my opinion there will have to be changes made in the building itself, and I don’t think they’re cost-prohibitive.”
The report will be presented either by Sweeney or in Sweeney’s presence at an Aug. 30 County Commission workshop with Staly, who will also discuss the impacts of the evacuation, which has been taking a toll on his operations.
As with Hejzlar, whom sheriff’s employees see as a county mercenary rather than an independent scientist–trust in his findings was non-existent on their side even before the findings were revealed–questions may likewise arise regarding Sweeney’s role, questions he did not entirely dispel during an interview. He provided a one-page professional biography with his report, starting with his 1966 doctorate in environmental toxicology and water resources from Ohio State and tracing his professional postings as an assistant professor and administrator at the State University of New York, advising stints in the Nixon and Johnson administrations, and hired work for “private and governmental agencies to remedy a broad number of environmental problems. Some of those involved “sick buildings” in which occupants were experiencing health problems.”
He said two of them were hospitals in the Buffalo area where the problems were resolved by finding the sources of mold and cleaning air-handling devices. He said he was involved in such work on 14 to 18 buildings in the United States and Europe, but asked to be more specific and give examples, he said confidentiality agreements prevented him from doing so–even with regards to work he did on public buildings, though such confidentiality agreements would be very unusual.
“Some of those were in New York State, some in Europe, but the work in Europe was for U.S. companies,” Sweeney said. “But all of the efforts or the instances that I worked on were things that were being decided on a legal basis, and at the conclusion of each of those all parties agreed to confidentiality, so I’m not at liberty to elaborate on any of those.”
The most recent work he did along those lines, he said, was “probably 10 years ago.”
He said he’s testified as an expert witness 25 to 30 times on “other environmental issues,” and has written “more than 100 articles and three books on environmental matters,” but not on sick-building syndrome. He moved to Flagler Beach six years ago. He has been the sole proprietor of a company he calls R.A. Sweeney and Associates for some 30 years, the company name that appears on the report Staly commissioned. The company is not registered at the Florida Division of Corporations. “I thought it was,” he said, adding that it was registered in North Carolina and New York. (At the Division of Corporations, he is listed as a director of the a director of the Ocean Lake Villas Condominium Association in Flagler Beach. Sweeney later said he’d misspoken about having thought he’d been registered in the state: the company has been registered in New York only, and does not need to be registered in Florida if he is the sole proprietor, he said.)
It was Sweeney who’d approached Staly to propose a review. “We talked and I said I had some experience that might be pertinent,” Sweeney said, “and I would be happy to review the reports that had been generated and give him my candid opinion as to the accuracy and any other pertinent information that would be of value.”
Staly forwarded the report to the county administration and county commissioners at 1 p.m. today. Sweeney, he told commissioners, “was never given any direction or expected outcomes by myself or anyone from the Sheriff’s Office. His only directive was to review all the documents from A-Z on the Operations building and to provide me with an unbiased and professional opinion based on his review, which I believe he has done.”
Staly also forwarded the report to CDC. In that email, he asked CDC officials: “Since you may be under budget, travel and time constraints with other investigations and your visit on September 5-7 could possibly be your only onsite visit I would encourage you to bring any testing equipment you may deem necessary that you may need or that could help you (and us) determine the situation and what is making my employees sick. With the changes done to the building by the county and Dr. Sweeney’s assessment I certainly support any testing you may wish to conduct during your visit.”
That email revealed that 21 sheriff’s employees said they plan to speak with CDC officials, as will Sweeney, should officials want to meet with him.
Contacted for a comment on the report early this evening, County Administrator Craig Coffey said it was “too soon,” and that he would have the report read by next week.