November 8, 2009
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Two women who work in the same office at Ohio State University became ill with a fungal disease that attacks the lungs.
The university is relocating College of Engineering employees who work in a suite on the first floor of Hitchcock Hall, said Amy Murray, an OSU spokeswoman. And the university is bringing in a contractor that specializes in testing for the disease, called histoplasmosis.
Whether the women became ill at work remains a medical mystery that the university intends to solve, she said.
But one of the women who got sick said it’s no mystery.
Olga Stavridis, 42, the college’s associate director for career services, said she recently paid to have a ceiling tile from her office tested for the fungus that causes histoplasmosis. “It was detected,” she said.
She said she gave Ohio State the results on Oct. 13.
Stavridis said she contracted the disease after her office and adjacent offices flooded on March 13. University maintenance workers and a cleaning contractor opened up the ceiling tiles and ran box fans for the next several weeks to make sure everything dried.
Stavridis worked beneath the fans.
“I posed the question,” she said. “I wanted to make sure there were no carcinogens blowing around. I had never heard of histoplasmosis.”
Ohio State’s office of environmental health and safety checked the suite for mold and inspected the ceiling, Murray said. They found no mold problems and no signs of animal infestation.
Because the fungus that causes histoplasmosis grows in bat and bird droppings, finding those would have triggered more testing, she said.
In late May, Stavridis said, she began waking up with sharp pains in her right lung. She had fevers, chills and night sweats.
Doctors at Riverside Methodist Hospital tested her for lung cancer. Though the tests were inconclusive, she said, they removed part of her right lung in June as her condition worsened. A hospital spokeswoman declined to comment.
Meanwhile, concerned about Stavridis’ illness, Ohio State paid for mold tests in the office suite, Murray said. The tests found no problems, but they didn’t look for the fungus that causes histoplasmosis.
Stavridis continued to get sicker. In late June, her husband, John, drove her 14 hours to Minnesota for a consultation with a lung specialist at the Mayo Clinic.
“When we walked in that morning, he immediately thought and suspected it was histoplasmosis,” Stavridis said. “I had the classic symptoms.”
A blood test confirmed the diagnosis, and she was given anti-fungal medications that she continues to take today.
“I let (Ohio State) know immediately what I had,” said Stavridis, who has since returned to work.
In October, four months after Stavridis was diagnosed with histoplasmosis, a second employee, Amy Franklin, became ill. She declined to comment.
“That’s very concerning that two employees became ill with the same condition,” Murray said.
Greg Washington, the dean of the engineering school, met with staff on Tuesday to explain the situation, Murray said.
“Five people during that meeting asked to be moved,” she said.
Still, Murray said it’s too early to say that Stavridis and Franklin contracted histoplasmosis at work.
“It’s a mystery, but we certainly want to make sure that the workplace didn’t play a role in this,” she said.
“Our understanding is that histoplasmosis is a pretty common fungus in Ohio. You find it in the soil.”
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