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Toxic mould closes Pukekohe courtrooms

20 Feb 2024

| Author: Rod Vaughan

Several Auckland lawyers say they are battling debilitating respiratory illnesses after being exposed to toxic mould at the Pukekohe courthouse, with one being hospitalised and unable to work.

Speaking to LawNews on condition of anonymity, these lawyers are highly critical of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for what they say is its failure to remove the mould in a timely manner and for not advising everyone working at the courthouse about the problem.

As a result, they say the health and safety of practitioners like themselves has been seriously compromised. Of particular concern is the lawyers’ room at Pukekohe where visible black mould has been a longstanding problem.

“The vinyl wallpaper fell away from the wall about four years ago, exposing visible mould on the back of the wallpaper and on the wall,” one lawyer says. “This was caused by water ingress in the ceiling, and it was well-known that the roof was leaking. When it was raining, we had to put buckets in the courtroom to catch the drips. We called it to the attention of the court manager several times. As far as I know, the mould was never tested.”

The lawyer says about two years ago a workman came to the lawyers’ room in full PPE and sprayed the affected surfaces with bleach. He then re-glued the wallpaper to the wall. The lawyer says an investigation into mould in the Pukekohe courthouse was initiated after the hospitalisation of an MoJ employee, but the lawyers’ room was not included in the schedule of areas to be tested, despite its known history with mould.

“The very brief test eventually carried out in the lawyers’ room was done only because one of the lawyers present asked [the worker] to do it, and he had to get permission to extend his tests to include our room. “A recent test showed the lawyers’ room had by far the highest level of stachybotrys mould in the building.”

According to medical literature, heavy and prolonged exposure to stachybotrys can trigger respiratory, dermatological, eye and constitutional problems. And research by Dr Dale Bredesen of the University of California, Los Angeles, also implicates toxic mould in the onset of Type 3 Alzheimer’s disease in some people. According to his research, Type 3, which is commonly called Inhalational Alzheimer’s Disease, is caused by breathing in poisons which bioaccumulate over time.

Bredesen, who authored the best-selling The End of Alzheimer’s, believes respiratory exposure to any mould, not just toxic varieties like stachybotrys, might be capable of causing brain inflammation, cognitive decline and emotional problems.

The lawyers spoken to by LawNews say they were not told about the presence of stachybotrys in the lawyers’ room and discovered it only after a colleague approached the MoJ’s head office. “I contacted WorkSafe when we were finally alerted to a mould situation,” one said. “My specific request to WorkSafe was that they should ensure that proper further testing should be carried out in the lawyers’ room, including by taking actual lifts of the mould material. “Or, that if there was insufficient time to do further testing before work began, then at least to ensure some of the mouldy material was saved for testing. “I believe one of the other lawyers made the same request to MoJ. I asked for the opportunity to be kept open for the lawyers to engage their own tester and analyst.”

However, the lawyers say they’ve since been told a second round of testing that was supposed to include every room at the courthouse did not, in fact, include the lawyers’ room.  “And the analysis of the second round of tests concludes that there is a very low level of stachybotrys. One has to wonder how that analysis would have changed had the lawyers’ room been included.

“We would really like to know who made the decision to exclude the lawyers’ room from these tests. In our opinion, this was the most egregious failing on the part of the MoJ or whoever made that call. “Furthermore, we are told that the material from the lawyers’ room has now been disposed of, so we are precluded from getting a better picture of the exact nature of the contamination that we have been exposed to. The lack of information will surely impact on our ability to get the appropriate testing and treatment.”

For its part, the MoJ says it has been proactive in dealing with the issue and is acting appropriately to mitigate the risk (see also page 5). And a committee, with two ADLS representatives, has been set up in Auckland to monitor progress. The lawyers say WorkSafe declined to get involved on their behalf because it was satisfied that remediation work was being carried out satisfactorily. They also contacted Auckland Council’s health enforcement section but were told they needed to go to Regional Public Health.

“One of the lawyers had already done that and been told to approach the council! There appears on the face of it to be a lack of independent analysis and investigation. That should have been the driver of the remedial work. I also believe the MoJ has failed to take all practicable steps to protect lawyers by not undertaking repairs when the problem was initially discovered.” One of the lawyers first became ill about six months ago and had to be admitted to hospital last month.

“I had palpitations, breathing difficulties, nausea, pressure in my throat and ears and nose bleeds, tiredness and sweating with an inability to regulate my body temperature. “I was discharged for further follow-up investigations. An initial blood test has not revealed a heart blockage, but the attending doctor felt the symptoms were too specific to be simply anxiety-related.

“I have been referred to Middlemore [Hospital] for a general investigation and the case is reasonably urgent. I continue to suffer these symptoms. As a result, I have had to take medical leave from my duty roster for a month. I have attended court a couple of times for matters in Pukekohe but have been left breathless afterwards so I have had to get an agent to appear on my behalf.” The lawyer says she first became aware of the toxic mould issue after receiving an email from the MoJ on 19 March this year, advising lawyers to see their GP if they felt unwell.

“I have since then received further information informally through the grapevine but nothing from the ministry directly,” she says. “Whether my medical symptoms relate to the toxic mould is yet to be ascertained. At the time I was hospitalised and when I later saw my doctor, I was not aware of the developments at the courthouse.  “I believe if we are being asked to consult with our medical professionals, they should be provided specific information and the ministry has failed to enable us to do this. “Everything I know about this is virtually secondhand, thanks to a colleague who has pushed the ministry and not been afraid to confront them. They have graciously shared this. My first impression was that this was a real cop-out on behalf of the ministry which simply did not wish to deal with any further questions on our behalf.” The lawyer says she has not heard personally from the MoJ or been offered compensation for medical costs and lost income.

“Whether or not my medical situation is related to the toxic mould issue is not the point; the courthouse is not, in my opinion, a safe working environment. “The lawyers were relocated to a room that itself was questionable. There has been no subsequent testing and clearing of the lawyers’ room and I have no idea whether the mouldy gib board has been replaced.

“Therefore, sick or not, many of us cannot return to work until we know the environment is clean. But how are we ever going to know this if we are not being told anything by the ministry? Pukekohe is not the only courthouse to have a toxic mould problem. Some lawyers believe it’s also present in the lawyers’ room at the Papakura courthouse.

“It is stinky, with little or no ventilation, and although a heat pump was installed the air is pretty nasty,” said one. Chris Foote, convenor of the ADLS Courthouse Liaison Committee, told LawNews he was concerned at the way in which the toxic mould issue has been handled by the MoJ. “The letter from the building consultancy retained by MoJ (Incodo) to the ministry, dated 13 April 2021, gives a timeline showing Incodo was approached on 25 February to carry out testing work.

“The test results came back on 18 March and provided sufficient justification to close off three areas immediately on health and safety grounds. “The email from Moana Ieremia (Manager Justice Services – South Auckland Courts & Tribunals) commendably went out as an advisory the next day, 19 March, but to whom? “It starts off, ‘Please circulate to your teams/ networks’, but this may have been only to MoJ staff. “In a health and safety emergency like this, I consider it critical that MoJ immediately advises not only its own staff and the judiciary, but also the NZLS, the ADLS and the bar associations so those organisations can use their databases to get out urgent emails to all lawyers.”

Foote says he suspects the matter has been treated merely as a local issue. “In my opinion, such siloed thinking has no place in health and safety matters. Many court lawyers travel extensively to various courts in the course of their work and those courts may well be some distance from wherever their legal office might be situated. “All lawyers need to know as soon as possible what health and safety issues there are at any court rather than being excluded from information on the specious ground of not being a local practitioner.

“If I am right in my thinking, then I hope the events that have unfolded provide an opportunity for MoJ to learn of the need to communicate more widely and to treat all lawyers as stakeholders in the court system, as their health and safety is just as important as [that of] MoJ staff.” Concerns about toxic mould at Papakura and Pukekohe come only six years after the ministry spent $1.24 million replacing a leaky roof on the Tauranga courthouse.

Despite the repairs, a raft of issues with the courthouse were discovered during an MoJcommissioned investigation in 2016, including the presence of stachybotrys mould. The investigation, which was undertaken by Prendos New Zealand Ltd, concluded that a full reclad was needed to properly fix the building. “This is the only way to provide any degree of certainty in achieving a dry environment for the structure and ensure the future durability of the building,” it said. According to The Bay of Plenty Times, the MoJ made the findings of the investigation public only after a complaint to the Ombudsman.

The MoJ subsequently said air quality tests at the courthouse are being conducted monthly to ensure there is no risk to occupants’ health.

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