Public health inspector says toxic mold made him sick

Mon, Mar 26, 2007 (7:16 a.m.)

A public health inspector who says he was sickened by mold in his office is still waiting for his disability benefits - a year after an arbitrator ruled in his favor.

Dan Pauluk says his various and debilitating maladies are worsening, and he is frustrated that his employer - a public health agency, no less - would balk at acknowledging its culpability in his sickness.

Southern Nevada Health District officials, however, say office mold did not get the inspector sick, which is why the insurance company that provides the agency's health benefits, Sierra Nevada Administrators, denied Pauluk's claim in 2005.

The 57-year-old Pauluk appealed to a state hearing master and in early 2006 won. A state workers' compensation hearing master ordered the district and its insurer to pay his medical bills that at the time were $30,000 but now are about $50,000, and to pay him two-thirds of his salary. Pauluk earned about $56,000 a year.

Also last year, the Public Employees Retirement System of Nevada determined Pauluk to be totally and permanently disabled.

The Health District and its insurance administrators are appealing, and nothing has been scheduled.

So Pauluk is still waiting for his disability benefits - and says toxic mold syndrome is killing him in the meantime.

"I did my job by protecting the public's health, but the Health District did not protect mine," said Pauluk, who was raised in Minnesota and is an Air Force veteran. "Now they are just hoping I will go away or die. They are using delay tactics."

Attorney Dan Schwartz, who represents the Health District and Sierra, said it is not uncommon - nor is it a delay tactic - to take a workers' compensation case to the second appeal level, noting that 65 percent to 85 percent of all hearing master decisions are appealed.

Schwartz said his clients are appealing because they say Pauluk's claim is not a job-related injury.

The Health District says the mold in its aging Shadow Lane building was not as bad as Pauluk made it out to be - it was found in only a couple of ceiling tiles - and it presented no danger to employees or visitors. Health District spokeswoman Jennifer Sizemore said that since mold was found in the building in 1998, six environmental studies have been conducted. The last one, in January, found the mold was gone.

After learning of the mold above his desk in late 2003, Pauluk made several requests for transfers to a mold-free office.

Finally, in October 2005, Pauluk was transferred to the East Las Vegas office and two weeks later went on permanent medical leave from his job, which included inspecting restaurants, motels and hotels.

Pauluk says his symptoms today include a blotchy rash, shortness of breath, memory loss, cysts, difficulty walking and concentrating , and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

In a March 28, 2006, letter in support of Pauluk's initial hearing, his lung specialist, Dr. Naresh Singh, wrote: "It appears that his illness is a natural conclusion to his exposure to the toxic mold found present at his workplace."

"Daniel is my most severe case," Singh said in an interview. "Some of his symptoms I do not fully understand myself. His prognosis is not good. He has been away from the (Health District's) environment for some time now and continues to deteriorate."

Pauluk says his battle for compensation for his illness has taken almost as much of a toll on him as his ailment.

"He lives (the legal battle) all day long," said Wendy Pauluk, his wife. "He dreams about the case and often wakes up in the middle of the night wondering if he forgot to put a document back in the right file."

Pauluk, who has an associate's degree in environmental health and bachelor's and master's degrees outside the health field, says his medical co-pays run about $1,000 a month.

Molds are fungi common in wet environments.

Scientific opinions vary about the dangers of mold.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, there is no proven link between mold exposure and illness.

Toxicologist Bruce Macler of the Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco said although molds can cause health problems in sensitive people, "the notion of mortality is far-fetched."

Pauluk says office mold has afflicted co-workers.

Eight co-workers whose desks were within 50 feet of his have died since the early 1990s of various forms of cancer and other ailments, and five others became so ill they have quit or retired.

Experts say without proper analysis of factors such as age, genetics and lifestyle, the deaths cannot be scientifically linked to any one source, inlcuding mold.

Still, the Health District's human resources department acknowledged in a September 2005 interoffice memo that "Dan is the third current active employee with this specific diagnosis."

That is little consolation for the Pauluks.

Wendy Pauluk, a clinical psychologist, says she had to hire a full-time caregiver for her husband so she could continue to operate her psychology clinic. The couple can't get by without her paycheck.

What irks Dan Pauluk almost as much as his ailment is his ex-employer's attitude. "I have not been shown one bit of empathy or kindness from them," he said.

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