METHUEN — Every so often as she walks around Methuen City Hall, Tricia Rosanio can't help but cough.
Rosanio, who works for the city's Department of Public Works, has asthma, a condition that she said developed after she started working at City Hall in 1998. It started with a case of bronchitis when she worked in the assessor's office and turned into mild asthma before worsening over time.
“Now I can barely walk up a flight of stairs, especially in the building, without coughing,” she said.
Rosanio thinks her breathing difficulties developed, at least in part, from what she and others believe to be mold that exists in parts of City Hall. Other city workers have reported headaches and breathing issues to their union – AFSCME Council 93, Local 3699 – for which Rosanio is now secretary.
Concerns about the apparent mold and the health issues led the union and its president, Bill DePardo, to contact Mayor Stephen Zanni's office and request environmental and air quality testing in the building.
After some delay due in part to a contract mishap and staff turnover, the city is now pushing forward with lining up the testing. Zanni said the city was in talks with both the state and a private company to see which was the best option for completing the testing efficiently and in a timely manner.
“It's a concern we have in the building. Now we want to do something about it,” Zanni said. “It's brought to my attention and now we're going to have someone come in and do an actual air quality control test of this building.”
DePardo said testing should have been taken care of already, and expressed concern for his coworkers.
“I think it was an ongoing problem that was never addressed and this came to my attention and seeing that I'm the union president, I want to make sure that this is taken care of,” he said.
What appears to be mold is visible in several parts of the Searles Building that houses the City Hall offices, notably between the first floor and the basement on what would be the right side of the building if entering from the rear parking lot.
Past the customer service center on the first floor that houses offices including the city clerk's is a set of stairs that leads down to the basement. Following those stairs down, apparent mold, water staining and damage becomes visible from parts of the ceiling to the columns on the walls.
A door marked as an emergency exit mostly seals off a room that, when entered, smells of moisture and mildew. The rectangular frame surrounding the door does not reach all the way to the top of the arched entryway to the room.
The stairs continue down from there to a hallway that leads to the boiler room and the lower entrance to City Hall, where water damage is also visible.
“What comes out of that room goes straight down that hallway into the building,” said DePardo, who is also a city health inspector.
He added that since the stairwells in the building were “all open,” there was an air exchange going through the building that could transfer mold particles around.
Despite the mold and the sealed room, DePardo and Rosanio said they, as employees in the building, had not been told to stay away from that area.
Mold can have varying effects on people, from skin or eye irritation to nasal stuffiness or wheezing. More severe reactions can include shortness of breath or fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Certain studies and health organizations have also linked indoor exposure to mold with upper respiratory tract symptoms, coughing and wheezing in otherwise healthy people, as well as triggering asthma symptoms in those with asthma, according to the CDC.
Rosanio said she was highly concerned by the mold situation and other health issues that have cropped up among City Hall employees.
“I do believe, and so does almost everyone in our union that there's something seriously wrong in the building, and we want an air quality check and an environmental check, too,” Rosanio said.
She added that she felt the mayor was now taking an active role in getting the testing done.
"I do feel that the mayor is trying to get things done, I do think he is concerned, I just don't think it was brought to his attention until us," she said.
Union members raised their concerns during the union's February meeting, when they voted to send a letter to the mayor asking for environmental testing to be done, DePardo said.
He said a letter from the union was hand-delivered to the mayor; William Buckley, the city's director of economic and community development; then-Health Director Brian LaGrasse; and DPW Director Patrick Bower, on March 15, followed by an email on March 30, which received “no response.”
Another request was sent out on April 7, “and at that time they started to realize that things had to be done,” DePardo said.
A company called IndoorDoctor sent someone to City Hall on April 12, but testing was not completed that day due to a contract issue, a mishap that occurred around the time LaGrasse was leaving his position with the city.
Zanni said that after receiving an email at the end of March, the city sent out a request for proposals to start the process of getting the testing done, which was supposed to be done on April 12, but the contract wasn't signed, so the testing wasn't completed.
Despite that setback, Zanni stressed that he wanted the testing done quickly and thoroughly. He noted areas of concern in parts of the lower level of the building, including the warded-off area.
“I want a full air quality control done on the building air. The reason is, some people have complained about headaches. A couple of people have had breast cancer – I don't know if that's tied to the building – it's a concern that people have had here so I thought it was important to have a test done here to see if there's anything in the building we're not aware of,” Zanni said.
He continued, “Besides air quality, we will also test for any type of mold that might exist. It will be pretty intensive.”
DePardo said the company IndoorDoctor offered quotes for two testing options – an air quality and mold assessment for $6,565, and an expanded chemical and mold testing for $9,995.
He said that he had also reached out to the state – specifically Michael Feeney, director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's Bureau of Environmental Health Indoor Air Quality Program.
On Thursday, DePardo said he heard that the state could come to Methuen on May 19 to conduct the testing for free.
“I just want to get it done,” DePardo said. “If they would have given me this to do a month ago I would have had it done already.”
Zanni said on Wednesday he would consider both proposals. He could not be reached for further comment Thursday afternoon.
“I want to have this done as soon as possible,” Zanni said Wednesday. “I want to do the best for the city, but I want to make sure it's been done properly.”