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Analysis: Other than The Mold And The Rats, It’s A Picture of Health

If the state’s health agencies have been willing — until found out — to let their own employees work in squalor, should the rest of us be asking more questions about how they’re watching out for us?


Obtained by The Texas Tribune
Mold on a computer wrist rest at the Austin State Hospital 636 building.

You would think the agencies that handle health matters for the state would take care of health hazards in their own buildings.

We're not talking about falling ceilings, droopy drywall or loose carpets, here. The state of Texas has loads of real estate that isn't properly maintained.

No, this time we're talking about a repellant, awful, gross workplace. Rats. Creepy-crawlies. Mold.

The response to this has been completely and discouragingly predictable. After The Texas Tribune's Marissa Evans wrote about the conditions at the Austin State Hospital’s 636 Building, the Department of State Health Services relocated 127 employees. But someone handed Evans a recording of an agency "town hall" where DSHS Commissioner John Hellerstedt told employees there was no health risk.

"That was not an unsafe environment," Hellerstedt said. "It was an undesirable environment, it was an unsustainable environment, it wasn’t a place where we should expect people to continue to work … I absolutely guarantee you if I thought for a minute that there was a danger, that it was an unsafe environment, we would have really hit the fire alarm and had everyone leave the building."

Um, everyone did leave the building. But he's right: Nobody set off the fire alarm.

The crew that got moved analyzes data on tuberculosis, HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.

The rats infest another state office building — the Brown-Heatly, headquarters to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. It's the agency that, among other duties, oversees DSHS.

It's another place where the state's health regulators are working shoulder-to-shoulder, more or less, with the kinds of vermin and mold they are dedicated to controlling. It's not all that they do, but it does make you wonder about the other things they're supposed to be doing.

You know about M&Ms and Van Halen? Starting in the 1980s, that band included a rider in its contracts saying M&M candies should be provided for munchies — and that the brown M&Ms should be removed. It sounds like something an indulgent and whacked-out rock-and-roll band would dream up, but the real purpose of the rider, according to singer David Lee Roth, was to see whether their local sponsors were paying attention to the details in their complicated contracts. If the band arrived in town and the brown M&Ms were still in the jar, they'd know that the locals either hadn't read the contracts carefully or had ignored them — and that they might well have missed something more important than the candy.

Details, details.

All that's required to turn you off in a restaurant is a bit of someone else's lipstick on your tea glass, a thumbprint on the blade of the butter knife, a drop of dried ketchup on the menu.

A sticky floor in a movie theater. Yuck. A rat disappearing around the corner in a parking garage at work. Ugh. A doctor's examining room that isn't sparkling clean. Yikes.

It's creepy and off-putting to find that the people protecting you from infectious diseases are themselves stuck in a mold-infested building, that they have to flip on their lights to check for rats — or maybe worse, rat droppings — before they go to their desks and turn on their computers for another day's work.


There is no evidence here that they aren't doing the job they're supposed to do. In fact, it's the people who are doing their jobs — the line workers, the everyday state employees — who have to live with this filth. It's the people higher on the government food chain who deserve some attention.

It's the M&M test come to real life, to public health in Texas. If they're allowing rats and mold to go unchecked — unless they're publicly called to account — what else are they neglecting?