SPRINGFIELD — With its comfortable interior and downtown views, the judicial chamber in the northeast corner of the Hampden County courthouse is among the nicest in the building.
But it lay unwanted and vacant for a year after Judge William J. Boyle, the first justice of Springfield District Court, retired in 2018. A popular jurist and avid runner, Boyle had been stunned to discover he suffered from ALS, the degenerative disease that kills nerve cells and withers muscles. He died at age 62 in September.
Boyle wasn’t the first casualty of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis who had worked in the office. Judge Robert F. Kumor Jr., who also used the second-floor chambers, died in 2013 of the incurable disease. In 2017, a longtime employee who had worked directly above the office died of ALS.
“Powerball odds,” Boyle told the Springfield Republican before his death, echoing his doctor’s reaction. The judge also said that tests had found highly elevated levels of lead and mercury in his body.
The minuscule probability of three people in such close proximity dying of ALS — two in 100,000 people are diagnosed with the disease each year in the United States — has unnerved employees and regular visitors to the state’s third-busiest courthouse, which has generated myriad health complaints for years.
“I’m not a doctor and I can’t diagnose causal connections, but you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in this building who would not find it at least odd,” said Laura Gentile, clerk of Hampden Superior Court.
An environmental consulting company said its testing last year found no problems that would cause serious illnesses, but many court workers are convinced that the building’s poor air quality or other hidden dangers are causing persistent, pernicious harm.
Last year, Gentile moved two court reporters from the third-floor office where the longtime employee stricken by ALS had worked. One had developed blood clots in her lungs, and enough was enough, Gentile decided.
“I just wasn’t going to take a chance,” the clerk said.
ALS has no known cause, and its roots remain a mystery. However, Marc Weisskopf, a professor of environmental epidemiology at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University, coauthored a federally funded study in 2018 that linked exposure to diesel exhaust to greater risks of developing ALS.
Boyle’s and Kumor’s former office is located above a busy courthouse garage where vehicles frequently come and go.
“These are three unrelated cases of ALS in the same building,” Weisskopf said. “Given the rarity of ALS, that would strongly suggest some environmental exposure rather than genetics.”
Dr. Paul Mehta, principal investigator for the National ALS Registry of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the courthouse cluster is “certainly very intriguing.”
Cancer cases also have sparked concerns at the courthouse. From 1995 to 2005, four people who had worked on the building’s third floor, including three Superior Court judges, died from pancreatic cancer. They ranged in age from 48 to 57.
Yet, a recent state-funded study by Environmental Health & Engineering, a Newton-based company that has done extensive work for the state, did not establish a connection between the building and serious illnesses. In preliminary findings released Jan. 22, the company wrote that its assessment “did not identify conditions that would support an environmental work-related cause for the cases of chronic health conditions reported in the buildings, including ALS or cancer.”
Those conclusions were reiterated last week by state court administrator Jonathan Williams, who works with the chief justice of the Massachusetts Trial Court to oversee 6,300 employees and 100 facilities.
“We are not finding evidence of environmental concerns under any of the available federal or industry standards, and that’s with a very particular effort to go and look for anything that’s in the environment,” Williams said in an interview.
Williams said the consultant’s review was wide-ranging and thorough, and that its findings would be shared with an environmental advisory committee at the courthouse. Changes have been made in cleaning and maintenance there, and the state plans to pay for urine tests for courthouse staff, he said.
But worries among court staff remain, and some employees and visitors do not believe the company’s testing and conclusions went far enough.
“The draft summary assessment, in the opinion of many courthouse employees, minimizes or ignores immediate, serious health risks to courthouse employees,” one court worker wrote to fellow members of the advisory committee. The employee asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
Civil litigator Jeffrey Morneau, former president of the Hampden County Bar Association, assailed the working conditions at the courthouse, which is across the street from the recently built MGM casino.
“I can’t imagine practicing there on a daily basis, knowing what’s happened,” said Morneau, who visits the courthouse once or twice a month. “It’s blatantly obvious that these buildings, long before Judge Boyle passed away from ALS, had significant structural, mechanical, and environmental problems.”
According to several staff members, a stubborn collection of respiratory, eye, and skin ailments runs rampant among the 500 employees in the four-story building, formally called the Roderick L. Ireland Courthouse.
In interviews, several courthouse employees listed years-long complaints including diesel or gasoline fumes in the building, leaking windows, mold, and a black sooty discharge that has coated the ceiling near overhead vents.
One longtime worker said he suffers from pleural effusion, or water on the lungs, which did not develop until he began working at the courthouse more than a decade ago. The middle-age man said he can no longer walk long distances, suffers from shortness of breath, and is prone to a hoarse cough. Outside the building, he said, the cough subsides.
“There’s no fresh air. You can’t open a window in the whole building,” said Gentile, who suffers from dry eyes and coughing. “People have a lot of issues with their eyes and sinuses in this building. And I can’t do anything about it.”
Some court employees criticized the consultant’s study for not addressing at length the possible health concerns related to elevated levels of fiberglass found in the building. The report stated that “fiberglass on surfaces has the potential to cause irritation.”
Glass wool fiberglass, which is often used as building insulation, carries serious health risks if inhaled and has been “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the federal government, according to the employee who wrote to the environmental committee, referencing a 2008 report from the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Springfield-area legislators have pressed the state for years to renovate or replace the court complex. State Senator James Welch, whose district includes downtown Springfield, accused the state of decades-long neglect.
“I wouldn’t want my wife or my kids or anyone in my family occupying the space that those two judges occupied,” Welch said.
Beacon Hill has not approved any new court buildings or major court renovations in Springfield for 25 years, Welch said. Elsewhere in the state, more than 20 such projects have been approved in that time, he added.
“Who determines which courthouses get repaired and upgraded?” asked Welch, who has called on a Senate committee to investigate the environmental complaints in Springfield. “There hasn’t been one person who’s told me, ‘This is my call.’ ”
Welch, a Democrat from West Springfield, criticized the environmental report as “limited in scope.”
The study “did not involve boring into the cement or concrete of the building, did not involve scraping of surfaces, and focused solely on air quality,” he wrote in November to the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight.
Williams, the Massachusetts court administrator, defended the consultant’s review and the state’s efforts to maintain its sprawling court system, which needs $3 billion in capital improvements.
More than 10 percent of that total, or $300 million, would go to Hampden County as part of the state’s 20-year, three-phase proposal to rebuild the courts, Williams said. The Roderick L. Ireland Courthouse would receive more than $100 million for repairs.
When that work would begin is uncertain. “Obviously, we can’t act on $3 billion at once,” Williams said.
The project cannot start soon enough for court staff in Springfield and the lawyers who work there. To Morneau and many others here, Western Massachusetts can seem like a separate state when government funding is disbursed, even when the issue is urgent.
“For reasons that are inexplicable to me, the Hampden County [courthouse] has been far down on the list of what the state thought needed to be repaired, replaced, or moved,” said Morneau, the former county bar association president.
“I feel that it’s a little of the same old, same old,” he said.
Gentile, the Superior Court clerk, spoke with a sense of resignation about the court complex where she has worked for 23 years. The courts offer good jobs, with benefits, that can’t easily be found elsewhere.
“I don’t think anyone disputes that we need a new courthouse,” said Gentile, who was working despite a cold. “We don’t have an option. It is what it is.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.