Sorting Through a Sickness

November 10, 2008 8:19:37 PM PST
Nationwide, hundreds of postal employees say they're ill with what they call severe, mysterious, respiratory problems. Many of them are right here in the Chicago area. Current and former postal workers blame paper dust inside the post offices. The last government studies on postal dust were ten years ago. The U.S.P.S says the science can't verify their theory. That's not acceptable for people who say they're "sorting through a sickness."

"I do believe that my life is going to be shortened," says former postal employee Delphine Howard. She and other former US postal workers in the Chicago area say they're all fighting chronic respiratory illness. Their medical records reflect their claims. They all say they've never smoked.

"I began to have breathing problems, asthma symptoms ,bronchitis," said former employee Betty Booker.

Sandra Sutton echoed that, saying, "I turn asthmatic and it shuts my lungs down."

More than 450 employees and former employees on a petition to occupational health officials and postal unions blame health concerns on paper dust fibers inside post offices. Several are fighting for health benefits.

Some former employees listed on the petition, like 37-year-old Judy Jimerson, passed away. Besides Illinois, the people on the petition are also from Kansas City and St. Louis.

There's also Earnest Perry, who complained, "You'd see dust flying." He's a lung transplant patient, in Raleigh, North Carolina. "It's scary not being able to breathe," he said.

They blame their illnesses on dust from letter sorting machines. They showed ABC7 dusty filters that workers say used to be in the sorting machines

"I started having severe bronchitis attacks, severe asthma attacks, severe chest pains. I would just break out," said Howard. She was manager at two area post offices since 1987. She left in 2005 after her doctor wrote a letter saying that Howard "?has a medical condition that is affected by unclean air, dust particles and residue in volumes in her present employment areas."

Harvard doctor Christine Oliver has worked in environmental and occupational medicine for almost 30 years. She says postal paper fibers could be the source of the symptoms. She points out, "Significant difficulties can arise as a result of work in a building with airborne contaminants or other problems."

There were two studies in 1998 from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, one in Tampa and one in an Omaha post office. Both reported no direct link to health concerns and postal dust, but Dr. Oliver says the studies uncovered some serious concerns, "Such things as dust volatile organic compounds...in the work environment, in one postal department, dust mites were identified in the air."

Both NIOSH and the US Postal Service declined on-camera interviews but said there is no need for more studies. The USPS also says it has only received two direct complaints of respiratory problems in the last several years.

In a letter dated January of 2007, NIOSH denied postal workers a request for further studies, saying they "were not likely to yield additional useful information."

Agency officials said they made their decision after talking with a union health official and postal office officials. They also reviewed air tests from some facilities which said "outside contractors had revealed that levels of airborne dust were far below Occupational Safety and Health Administration permissible exposure limits."

That is not a reason to not pay attention, says Oliver. "Just because the dust levels are low does not mean there is not a problem."

Postal workers continue to fight for more studies.

As for people on the petition who have since passed away, some of their family members still blame the post office work environment and postal dust. Dr. Oliver says that would be a rare instance, but studies do show that postal dust does contain volatile organic compounds from ink jet printers, which can be harmful.

NIOSH says, in the last several years, more precautions have been taken at post offices across the country, like encouraging workers to wear masks.

Two NIOSH health hazard evaluation reports page address paper dust in postal facilities:

http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/reports/pdfs/1998-0017-2699.pdf (Omaha)

http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/reports/pdfs/1998-0307-2761.pdf (Tampa)

It appears the evaluations reached similar conclusions. The investigators were unable, based on environmental measurements and health information from employees, to determine whether employees' symptoms were related to paper dust. As precautionary measures, the investigators recommended measures to control accumulations of paper dust.

Employees and Former Employees on the Petition are from these Post Offices:

Arlington Heights, IL
Carol Stream, IL
Chicago (Downtown), IL
Chicago Metro Surface Hub, IL
Maywood, IL
Palatine, IL
Rockford, IL
Westchester, IL
Kansas City, MO
St. Louis, MO
Raleigh, NC
Eau Claire, WI

If you are a former employee or employee concerned about postal dust you can contact:

-NIOSH http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/

-Grassroots organizer and former USPS employee Sandra Sutton (sandrasutton2002@aol.com)


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