Something at the Staten Island University Hospital seems to be sickening the staff, and while initial clues pointed to mold in the maternity ward, hospital officials say numerous tests indicate perfectly safe air quality. Still, since September, 53 employees have reported a slew of alarming symptoms that the administration can't explain.
"Every time I go in [to work at the maternity ward], and I have been there six times since this started, I get sick," nurse Robyn Jacobs told the NY Daily News. "I get these headaches, my glands swell, sore throat, scratchy throat, and I lose my voice. And then I get a tightness in my chest like an allergic reaction."
"Across the board it has varied from eyes burning, headaches, nausea, ... throat soreness, the metal taste in the mouth," Dawn Cardello, a 31-year maternity ward employee at SIUH, told SI Live. "Those are the basic symptoms." Another nurse, Gina D'Agostino-Saia, added that "pretty much all of the staff members, everyone that works there, [have] complained about something." D'Agostino-Saia said she had to make a pit stop in the emergency room on one occasion, when she couldn't shake a relentless itchy feeling that left her scratching incessantly.
The hospital has moved newborns to a backup unit, but so far, no patients have attested to any of the ailments staff have developed. Yet after complaints began rolling in this fall, the facility undertook "extensive air monitoring quality testing," Executive Director Brahim Ardolic, MD, explained in a statement. At the time, they detected moderately abnormal mold levels, about the same as you might find outside. Officials attributed the elevation to water-borne mold found behind a sink wall, and took steps to treat the area. That doesn't seem to have resolved the problem, though.
According to Ardolic, Northwell Health's industrial hygienist, as well as "certified outside agencies," have conducted a total of 30 independent environmental tests, none of which have turned up any risk factors. Earlier this month, monitoring detected that surgical gases—specifically, sevoflurane and nitrous oxide—were present in the maternity ward, but allegedly, not at levels significant enough to damage a person's health. "Since at their highest levels, sevoflurane detections were less than 1 percent of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health's (NIOSH) recommended workplace exposure limits and nitrous oxide levels were less than a tenth of the guideline, and pose no risk to patients, staff, or visitors," Ardolic said. Still, the hospital says that it will continue to keep tabs on the situation, although no gas leaks have been detected so far.
Ardolic says that the administration has been in regular communication with staff and union representatives, but some nurses remain skeptical. "On 9/11, they said the levels are safe and look at what happened," Jacobs told the Daily News. "I won't go to work anymore until this is cleared up—because I don't want to keep getting myself sick."
Hospital officials are unsure what more they can do, but Ardolic told the Daily News that moving the entire maternity ward—a solution some nurses have been pushing for, fearing that whatever's making them sick might also endanger their patients—isn't up for debate at the moment. "I understand where the fear and concern comes from, I totally get it, and we're not trying to minimize anyone's concerns," he said. "We can't move patients and a floor and take those types of risks without having some justification for doing that."
Although they're not constant, people continue to experience symptoms, and administrators are stumped. "The reality is no one quite knows why they got sick in the first place," hospital spokesperson Terry Lynam told Gothamist in an email.
"No patients or visitors have reported any health issues and all air testing results have come back clean," he added. "Bottom line is the there is no air quality issue."