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    Health concerns mount at Equifax

    The number of reports of hair loss and other ailments more than doubles as worried employees call federal officials.

    By ALICIA CALDWELL

    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 19, 2000


    ST. PETERSBURG -- The number of Equifax employees reporting hair loss and other ailments more than doubled to "25 or 30," said harried federal officials who struggled Friday to keep up with the calls, many of which came from worried employees asking whether they should stay home from work.

    "They're coming in like crazy," said Lawrence Falck, Tampa-area director for the local office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "It's a whole bag of different calls."

    It is likely that epidemiologists and doctors with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, known as NIOSH, will visit the building in the next few weeks to ferret out a source, if any, of contamination causing the problems, Falck said.

    Also on Friday, Equifax executives gathered the 2,200 employees who work in the Gateway area business to share with them results of environmental testing and assure them the company is doing everything possible to investigate.

    Previous testing showed the groundwater beneath the building was contaminated with three substances, including the heavy metal thallium, at levels above those Florida considers safe for drinking water, said Equifax executive Larry Towe.

    Thallium is a toxin that can enter the body through ingestion, inhalation or through the skin. It can cause hair loss, insomnia, numbness, loss of vision, skin irritation, confusion, kidney damage, coma and death.

    After three employees reported unexplained hair loss in March, the company began environmental air and water testing to try to figure out whether those substances were getting into the 300,000-square-foot building, or if there was another cause for the ailments.

    Towe said the company's drinking water comes from the public water supply, as does water used in the cooling systems. Water used for irrigation is piped-in reused water and is not drawn from groundwater, he said.

    Questions have been raised about whether recent excavation for a parking lot could have stirred up contaminants. In a written statement to Equifax employees, Towe wrote that the digging has gone only 2 feet deep and that the groundwater table is at least 5 feet underground.

    "We've examined every path that we know to examine, and we cannot establish a path coming into this facility," said Towe, executive vice president and general manager of Equifax Payment Services. "Hand-in-hand, we'll go through this entire process once again."

    Equifax has joined OSHA, he said, in inviting NIOSH to visit the facility.

    "They do a lot of interviewing and physical exams," Falck said. "They'll do some air sampling as well."

    The calls on Friday, Falck said, came from current and former employees who reported a variety of health concerns including hair loss.

    "Right now it's just a big question," Falck said. "We can't pinpoint what's causing the problem."

    Equifax has not had an unusually high rate of employee absenteeism due to the situation, Towe said. Nevertheless, executives are discussing how to handle the issue of employees who aren't coming to work because of environmental health concerns, Towe said.

    "We're certainly not going to penalize someone from a job-jeopardy point of view if they don't want to come to work," Towe said.

    The Gateway facility at 11601 Roosevelt Blvd. is the largest regional processing center for the Equifax check-verification business, which is the largest such operation in the world.

    Equifax moved into the building in 1995. In the decade prior, the building, constructed in 1980, was occupied by a division of Honeywell that produced navigation systems for missiles and military aircraft.

    OSHA is checking whether the hair loss and other ailments could be caused by environmental contamination. The agency also is looking into the possibility of contamination from a nearby landfill, known as Toytown, which accepted municipal waste for two decades ending in 1983.

    Pinellas County officials released a statement Friday saying the landfill has been carefully monitored since it closed. The most significant hazard, according to the written statement from the county, is liquid that passes through the garbage.

    This liquid is collected in a specially lined waterproof pit and tested for contaminants. Thallium, according to the statement, never has been detected in the liquid collected at the site.

    -- Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Pittman covers environmental issues and can be reached at craig@sptimes.com or at (727) 893-8530.

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