By CRAIG PITTMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- The first tests by consultants hired by Equifax Payment Services show no thallium contaminating the soil around the building where at least a dozen employees have suffered a mysterious hair loss, company officials said Thursday.
The soil, tested Saturday, showed levels of arsenic that "slightly exceeded" state standards around one of the property's retention ponds, Equifax vice president Larry J. Towe wrote in a memo to the company's 2,200 employees. The arsenic could be explained by the use of weed-and algae-control chemicals around the pond, he said.
"At this point, all our tests so far show our building is safe," said Towe, who said he has no trepidation about working in the building himself.
More test results from the building's air and groundwater should be ready by next week, Towe said. Testsdone by federal officials inside the building may be ready for review by then as well.
Ingesting high levels of arsenic can be fatal. Arsenic poisoning can damage the nerves, stomach, intestines and skin. One thing arsenic does not do, though, is make hair fall out -- unlike thallium, a heavy metal that has been detected in groundwater under the building in St. Petersburg's Gateway area.
Thallium is a toxin that can enter the body through ingestion, inhalation or the skin. In addition to hair loss, it can cause insomnia, numbness, loss of vision, skin irritation, confusion, kidney damage, coma and death.
It is an unusual contaminant to find in Florida groundwater, say state environmental regulators. So far, no one knows where it might have come from, although the company's consultant has suggested it might have originated in a long-closed landfill that sits across Roosevelt Boulevard from Equifax. Pinellas County officials say they have found no signs that the old Toytown landfill, which accepted municipal waste from the 1960s to the early 1980s, has ever had any thallium in it.
Three Equifax employees complained to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in March that they hadlost hair, prompting Equifax to test the building for radiation. In a two-page report sent to OSHA on March 31, company officials reported that the only radiation source they could find was the microwave ovens in the cafeteria and break rooms.
But the complaints grew louder. In June, an employee wrote to OSHA that four women "are totally bald and wearing wigs." As of last week, OSHA had a list of at least 12 employees, mostly women, who had experienced hair loss. Dozens more have called in since then to complain of assorted health problems. Most of the employees are from Equifax, but a few are from other nearby companies.
This week, OSHA inspectors spent seven hours testing the air quality in the 300,000-square-foot building and taking samples from surfaces throughout the company.OSHA assistant area director Rafael Rodriguez said he expects the lab will rush the results back sometime next week.
Equifax Payment Services, which deals with customers around the globe, is part of the largest check verification company in the world. It moved into the Gateway area building in 1995.
Before Equifax's move, the building was occupied by Honeywell's military avionics division, which produced navigation systems for missiles and military aircraft.
Honeywell officials say they never used thallium in that building and their employees never reported similar health problems.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration office address is 5807 Breckinridge Parkway, Suite A, Tampa FL 33610. The phone number is (813) 626-1177.
- Times Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.