Bad Chemistry

Kelly Zielbauer says she wasn't concerned about the health dangers she faced while working in the Colorado Department of Agriculture's Standards lab, despite the fact that she handled lethal chemicals daily. But when clumps of her hair fell out and she started getting headaches, she asked to be reassigned to a different job. Now her boss has ordered her back into the lab, but the 33-year-old Westminster woman says she's too scared to return.

And no wonder. Internal memos from the department's hygiene officer reveal that employees have baked their potatoes in the lab's chemical-drying ovens, stored frozen dinners alongside dangerous chemicals in the lab's refrigerator and regularly engaged in the risky procedure of using their mouths to suck up hazardous liquids for transfer.

The Standards lab, located at 2331 West 31st Avenue in Denver, is responsible for analyzing fertilizers, pesticides and animal feed to ensure that the products are safe. But after twelve years of working in the lab, Zielbauer says the lab isn't safe even for employees. And she claims that it was only after she tried to file a workers' compensation action against her employer last summer that officials started cleaning up the lab. "But for the most part, they just sent a lot of memos," says Zielbauer.

Despite the alarming internal correspondence concerning the Standards lab, Dr. Elizabeth Mishalanie, an independent consultant who was hired by the Department of Agriculture last summer to bolster safety, says messy labs aren't unique. "Honestly, every lab needs improvements," she says, "especially when you have people in labs who have worked there for many years. Chemists in the '50s, '60s and '70s used to eat, drink and smoke while working. Now everyone is paranoid."

Zielbauer says she had reason to be afraid.
"On top of working with chemicals like chloroform and acetone," she says, "we always got a lot of dead cats sent in for analysis and things of that nature. We even had a guy send in his underwear. His neighbor was spraying when the guy went out to get his paper in the morning. He was worried, so we told him to send in what he was wearing. It all seemed pretty normal. But when my son came up to me one day and said, 'Gee, Mom. I can see your scalp,' I started to get concerned. The supervisors said that [the hair loss] wasn't job-related. They said I was overreacting."

But the internal memos, sent by hygiene officer Charlie Hagburg, show that officials were concerned. In February 1997, Hagburg noted in a memo that "we all work in a rather dangerous environment, we get used to working in that environment and many of our everyday tasks no longer seem dangerous." He then banned the risky practice of using mouth pipettes, in which lab workers suck up liquids through tubes for transfer into other vessels.

"While mouth pipetting may seem harmless enough, especially if you are pipetting an innocuous solution," Hagburg wrote, "what happens when your attention wanders for a moment and you get a mouthful of concentrated sulfuric acid or a highly toxic chemical? Now you are on the floor unconscious vomiting blood. Do you think one of your co-workers is going to perform mouth to mouth? Do you think you will live?"

That June Hagburg sent another memo: "Some of the practices that have been allowed to exist in the laboratory are a holdover from another time, and we need to stop them. I am referring, for example, to storing food with chemicals or taking bicarb out of the storeroom to use as an antacid. In most modern analytical laboratories these types of things would not even be considered, so it would not be necessary to include them in a list of safety rules. Unfortunately, for some reason, some of these practices have been allowed to continue. It is not just us--staff from downstairs have on occasion used our lab drying ovens to bake potatoes or heat dinner rolls. This absolutely must stop."

The next month the Denver Fire Department got into the act. In a July 7, 1997, letter to the Department of Agriculture prompted by an inspection of the lab, Lieutenant Tony Beruman wrote that "there are several compliance issues which present an immediate life-safety concern to both your staff and the surrounding residential neighborhood." For instance, Beruman wrote, he had seen two chemicals stored next to each other which, if combined, "would create an explosion of lethal intensity."

Meanwhile, Zielbauer's headaches and short-term memory loss were intensifying, she says. In July she was transferred at her request to another division, where she worked as a supermarket bar-code-scanner inspector. But last month she received a letter from Ron Turner, the Standards Division director, who insisted that she return to her job as a lab technician immediately. Turner says he has no choice because of budget constraints.

"I started working in this division in 1981," says Turner. "This department is one-third smaller now than it was then, and this year we're losing four more people. It was a tough decision to ask Kelly to come back, because of her health problems, but I have to use her as a lab technician. That's where we can get the most bang for the public's buck. We don't have the money to fund her as a field inspector.

"Despite all the problems, I really hope she comes back," adds Turner. "People look at me like I've got two heads when I say that, but it's true. She's a contributor, and I need those kind of experienced folks. I don't have the time to bring in someone new and deal with that learning curve. I can assure you that we're doing everything possible to make the lab safe for her to work in. Hey, my office is right below it."

As a condition of her return, Zielbauer says, she's been banned from certain rooms. But she complains that the special rules won't prevent her from being exposed to dangerous chemicals.

Mishalanie, however, says that the lab has "definitely gotten better" and that it poses nowhere near the health risk it did just a year ago. "I'll admit that this is a tough one," says Mishalanie, who worked for the enforcement branch of the federal Environmental Protection Agency earlier in her career. "I'm not saying that Kelly's claims aren't true, but I can also see it from the management's point of view. The Standards lab is running on thin ice right now, staffing-wise, and they're doing a good job considering that. And as far as the safety issues, they've done a good job getting those resolved. I'm not saying it's perfect over there, but today you couldn't take any pictures like the one with the Lean Cuisines in the freezer next to the chemicals. I'd work there now."

But Zielbauer says she won't. "It was a good job and it paid well," she says, "but I don't want to go back. Nothing short of a court order will get me back into that lab. I'm not looking for any money from them. I just want a safe job.

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Tony Perez-Giese