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A Brutally Stressful Working Environment Turns Unhealthful: The Mold-Infested Saga of the Nation's Busiest FAA Facility - (10/10/2007)

CONTACT:     Calvin Phillips, NATCA Facility Rep. at Atlanta Center, 678-571-0571, caldvp@gmail.com; Victor Santore, NATCA Southern Region VP, 516-398-6572; nsorvp@bellsouth.net

HAMPTON, Ga. – The nation’s busiest air traffic control facility, Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center, is currently the site of a dangerous mold and fungus infestation that has reached crisis proportions after sickening scores of employees, adding an extraordinary amount of anxiety and stress to an already difficult work environment and has even led an outside contractor to pull its employees out of the building due to the serious health concerns.

Specifically, there is a fungus called Scopulariopsis in the control room. Spores from this fungal source are being dispersed through the air. Fungal samples were taken at the facility on Sept. 20 by Analytical Environmental. According to NATCA Atlanta Center Facility Representative Calvin Phillips, approximately half of the more than 300 controllers in the facility have suffered various degrees of health problems over a prolonged period of time.  

Scopulariopsis was found in mold growth under the elevated floor and in the duct work. Scopulariopsis requires substantial moisture levels to thrive. A common trait of slower growing molds that require substantial amounts of water over an extended period of time to propagate is that they often are the types that produce fungal toxins in order to help them compete with the faster growing organisms, according to outside environmental experts consulted by NATCA. 

“The FAA is trying to minimize the damages and rush a cleanup,” Phillips said. “The rampant growth of this problem has finally been uncovered and we are deeply troubled to learn that we are basically surrounded by this highly toxic fungus. For several years, we have been complaining of health issues and have long suspected that our sick building was to blame.”  

In July, Atlanta Center’s notoriously leaky roof was exposed before a Congressional committee, which reviewed photos of trash cans placed near controllers’ radar scopes to collect rainwater falling into the control room. But NATCA says that was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. “What is really outrageous is that employees have been complaining about symptoms like this for years at Atlanta Center,” NATCA Southern Regional Vice President Victor Santore said. “The roof has leaked for years and they wouldn’t fix it correctly. They built channels in the ceiling to re-route water away from the control floor but didn’t fix the roof. Years of dampness has caused the mold to flourish beneath the raised floor. The FAA ignored the warnings and pleas of the workforce and issued sick leave abuse letters instead.”          

Rick Baugh, who works for NATCA as a representative at the regional level, transferred from Fort Worth Center in Texas to Atlanta Center in October 2001 and by December of that year, began having symptoms such as severe sinus infections and severe headaches along with a few other minor symptoms. “I continue to have the headaches on an almost daily basis,” Baugh said. He added that the mood in the facility among controllers is “difficult to describe without actually seeing it.”

“Everyone is upset that this was not discovered before,” Baugh said. “They feel betrayed by the FAA for not believing us when we told them we were having health problems. Now we feel let down by the agency once again for not taking any corrective action. There were things that could have been done even without removing the mold. There are letters on record requesting that certain areas of operation that are worse than others be moved to unoccupied areas of operation in an attempt to get further from the mold. Such efforts proved fruitless. ‘Cost prohibitive,’ I believe, was the term used.” 

Baugh said it is no longer a running joke when controllers are assigned to certain operational control positions that are in closest proximity to the mold. “People argue over who has to go to these positions,” he said. “It is usually determined by who has been in the building the shortest amount of time as they are usually less affected by long term exposure.” 

NATCA is not alone in speaking out against this extremely dangerous situation. A local contractor from Fayetteville, Ga., “Peachtree Mechanical Inc.,” doing work for the FAA in the building, has issued a work stoppage for its employees, subcontractors and vendors and ordered them out of the facility. In a letter dated Oct. 5 (PeachtreeMechanicallettertoFAA_100507.pdf), Peachtree Mechanical Inc. Executive Vice President Richard Denney wrote, “We take this as a very serious issue and concern, and must act to protect the well-being and safety of all of our employees. … the project scope of our work includes the removal of duct work, air handlers and other appurtenances. This work is the housing and manifesting areas that could possibly hold mold and fungus. We have been directed to demolish said items above and we were never given any warning that the possibility of mold and fungus could be present. We have not been notified of the ongoing issues at the FAA by anyone.” 

Atlanta Center is responsible for the safe flow of air traffic in over 104,000 square miles of airspace encompassing parts of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky, including all of the aircraft landing and departing Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson and Charlotte’s Douglas International. In 2006, the facility handled over 3.125 million aircraft. The facility is divided into seven areas of specialization and operates 45 sectors.   

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