Deschutes County Health Services main building to close until Thursday

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County officials are still unsure why the main Deschutes County Health Services building is showing slightly elevated levels of carbon monoxide two months after at least four employees were sickened by noxious fumes.

The building on NE Courtney Drive in Bend was evacuated in March after employees reported smelling gas and other odors. At least four employees had ongoing symptoms after exiting the building and had to seek medical attention. County officials attributed the March issues to the heavy snowfall, which blocked the exhaust for the heating, ventilation and air conditioning units on the roof.

The building was outfitted with stand-alone carbon monoxide monitors, and the county took the opportunity to replace its aging fire alarm system with a new system that could also detect carbon monoxide.

But when the contractor brought the carbon monoxide monitoring online just over a week ago, the system began showing carbon monoxide levels inconsistent with previous monitoring. The county opted to close the building again on April 28 as it investigates the problem.

Contractors working on the problem told the Deschutes County Commission on Monday the building has an unusual configuration of its HVAC system, with 24 units located in a relatively tight space on its roof surrounded by a parapet. The contractors were working on the theory that exhaust from one unit might be going into the air intake for another, causing the elevated levels of carbon monoxide. But even when all units were running simultaneously, the contractors could not recreate the problem.

County officials stressed the elevated levels appear to be transient and well below established safety thresholds. Nonetheless such buildings should typically have carbon monoxide levels close to zero.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas, and when too much carbon monoxide is in the air, it can replace the oxygen in red blood cells.

Breathing carbon monoxide can cause headaches, dizziness, vomiting and nausea. If levels are high enough, people can pass out and die. Exposure to moderate and high levels over long periods of time has been linked with increased risk of heart disease, and people who survive severe carbon monoxide poisoning may suffer long-term health problems.

County officials said the highest spike in carbon monoxide levels recorded at the building was 8 parts per million, but the highest average levels were at 1 ppm. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers has the most conservative safety threshold for carbon monoxide levels at 35 ppm over one hour, or 9 ppm over eight hours.

Scientists are not sure what the health effects are when a person is exposed to low levels of carbon monoxide over a long period of time.

“We really don’t want to reoccupy the building until we have substantial reassurance the building is safe,” said Dr. George Conway, Deschutes County Health Services director.

Conway said many of the staff are still concerned about potential health effects from their exposure. The health department has organized an employee call with a toxicologist from the Oregon Health Authority’s Poison Control Center on Wednesday.

The health department has shifted its clinics and services from the main building to its other locations on Wall Street. That displaced most of the health department staff, as well as its behavioral health clinic and services for new and expectant mothers.

Some patients had appointments rescheduled, while others were redirected to new locations.

The county has been operating a shuttle from the Courtney building to its Wall Street campus. The sudden influx of patients and employees have created a parking shortage, and county officials planned to ask county employees to avoid parking in the Wall Street lots if possible.

“As well as we’ve been able to find places for people to work from, this can’t be a long-term strategy,” said Dave Inbody, administration and operations deputy director at the health department. “I think everybody will be thankful to get back into the building.”

Mosaic Medical operates a clinic that provides prenatal services and addiction treatment in the health services building. The clinic shifted patients and staff mainly to its east Bend location.

“There haven’t been any gaps in care,” said Kylan ­Pendleton, Mosaic’s Bend system manager. “We’ve notified the patients, and we’ve gotten cozy over here.”

It’s unclear, however, how long it will take for the building to reopen.

Last week, the contractors placed highly sensitive carbon monoxide detectors to measure average and peak levels from Tuesday to Thursday. But five of the six detectors failed to collect the needed data. The detectors were replaced and a new test run Saturday through Monday.

After briefing the county commissioners Monday afternoon, county officials planned to review the data from the new test and plan their next steps.

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of the combustion used by HVAC units to produce heat. County officials plan to turn off the heating function of the units linked to the higher carbon monoxide levels, using those units only for air conditioning and ventilation.

Summer temperatures will give the county time to address the heating concerns. Of the 24 units on the roof, 19 date back to when the building was opened in 1997. They were scheduled to be replaced next year.

Lee Randall, Deschutes County facilities director, said the county is now planning to replace the system with a hot water boiler system this year.

“I don’t think anybody wants to go into the next winter with this system in place,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-633-2162, mhawryluk@bendbulletin.com

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