Air traffic controllers sickened in Hampton facility

Mon, 10/08/2007 - 8:22am
By: Ben Nelms

Passengers and crews of commercial aircraft flying high in the skies over a large portion of the southeastern United States are kept safe by air traffic controllers at the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center in Hampton. But the safety of those keeping the public safe is being compromised. A majority of those employed at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) facility in Hampton have experienced one or more symptoms and illnesses that have plagued the control room for years. Many air traffic controllers believe the cause of so much illness is a fungus called Scopulariopsis. And many of the hundreds of Hampton staff live in Fayette, south Fulton and Coweta counties.

Recent fungal samples taken at the facility and tested by Analytical Environmental Services, Inc. showed that the areas where the air traffic controllers work indicated the highest level of contamination. National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) local chapter President Calvin Phillips said the Scopulariopsis-laden mold was found under the elevated floor, in the duct work overhead and in the walls of the control room. Referred to as “loaded” in the analytical report that measured the mold spore count in a range from “rare” to “loaded,” the control room’s spore count for the fungus Scopulariopsis totaled 1,700 spores per cubic meter.

“The rampant growth of the mold was finally revealed. We are basically surrounded by this highly toxic fungus,” Phillips said. “For years we have been complaining of health issues and have suspected our sick building was to blame.”

FAA Southern Region External Communications Manager Kathleen Bergen said Tuesday the mold or fungus was located in the cooling system area under the elevated floor of the 40-plus year-old building and that interim measures have been taken to prohibit the growth by lowering the temperature and air flow to reduce humidity. Access to the area under the floor has also been restricted, Bergen said. FAA is finalizing a plan to obtain the services of a contractor to abate the mold, she said, noting that air sampling in September registered negative results.

“The health and safety of employees is of primary concern,” Bergen said, explaining that FAA is reaching out to the public health service to help address the mold issue and to work with employees on a case by case basis to address individual health concerns.

But why would such significant amounts of Scopulariopsis be present at the Hampton facility? The answer is easy, said Phillips. It is the moisture, and plenty of it. Rain water enters through the control room ceiling in such volume that air traffic controllers sometimes place trash cans next to their work stations to catch the water. Others have resorted to holding umbrellas over their heads and radar scopes to keep water from reaching the equipment, he said.

Bergen took an different view of the use of umbrellas to ward off rain water from a leaking roof. The issue had surfaced several months ago during Congressional testimony, she said. The use of an umbrella was a singular event, one that was isolated and amounted to a humorous attempt to make a point about concerns at the Atlanta Center. Bergen said she would inquire about the use of trash cans to catch rain water running through the control room ceiling.

In addition to concerns with the building, the physical affects on air traffic controllers, trainees and contractors is demonstrable, Phillips said.

“A majority of controllers at this facility complain of one or more symptoms like headaches, congestion and allergy problems. Many past and present suffer from upper respiratory issues,” said Phillips. “All of the union members are air traffic controllers who work in the control room where the very high concentrations of mold were found. The FAA has known that the roof was leaking for years and didn’t fix the problem. They put in many patches that just moved the leaks to new locations. The dampness is what caused the mold to flourish.”

Phillips said reports of headaches, coughing, congestion and allergies among Hampton staff are common. Others have had more debilitating experiences, such as one controller who had to be taken straight to a local emergency room after manifesting symptoms at work. He had to be transferred to another work facility, Phillips said. Another controller has been diagnosed with brain lesions. Still others in significant numbers report that their symptoms disappear when off work for a few days, only to reappear when the return to work.

Phillips said NACTA wants to obtain a thorough and definitive ruling of the exact circumstances of the health and safety issues that have long plagued the Hampton facility.

Scopulariopsis has been cited as causing invasive sinusitis, keratitis, endophthalmitis, endocarditis, pneumonia, brain abscess and pulmonary infections, according to environmental science consultants such as Aerotech P&K. Excessive moisture in building materials supports microbial growth, according to a study reported in the August 1998 edition of Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

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Submitted by andreea360 on Fri, 07/04/2008 - 5:15am.

"Phillips said reports of headaches, coughing, congestion and allergies among Hampton staff are common. " Why is that? Are they allergic to alcohol too? At least they won't be getting in an alcohol rehab, lucky them.

Submitted by skyspy on Mon, 10/08/2007 - 9:14am.

Is this common in the south? Are slack building codes to blame for these structure problems? Are some building companies just more careless than others?

shadowalker's picture
Submitted by shadowalker on Mon, 10/08/2007 - 12:43pm.

id would like to know how many smoke, this is a high stres job which
can cause you to have more health problems then others, also depending on the age of the building could be an issue along with the ventalation system.
so there is no telling i use to smoke and had thoses problems often
now that ive stoped smokeing (4yrs) i no longer have them


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