LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. — Some New Jersey Lottery employees got a little more to scratch off than they bargained for.
For six months, tens of thousands of moldy Superstorm Sandy scratch-off tickets have been sitting in a warehouse at the state lotto's headquarters in Lawrenceville sickening several workers, according an employee who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
"We're all suffering from headaches," the employee said. "If you go into that room, you start experiencing respiratory problems. You feel like your chest is heavy and your sinuses are congested."
In addition to getting a daily whiff of the mold since early November, the employees were asked by their superiors to process and account for each pack of storm-damaged tickets. They were equipped with masks, gloves and protective suits.
"Even with the masks you can smell it," the lotto worker said of the mold. "Even with the gloves you can feel the sliminess of the mold."
Bill Quinn, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Treasury, which oversees the state's lotto, said the tickets were brought to the warehouse because the state couldn't destroy them immediately after getting wet from Sandy.
"They still had to count them to make sure that the retailers were getting the proper amount of financial credit for returning these tickets," he said Wednesday. "I don't think there's any way they can estimate how many came back."
Quinn said after the mold appeared on the tickets in a couple weeks, a health and safety officer from the state was brought in to assess the situation.
"She then evaluated it and came up with the plan to seal the boxes," Quinn said. "She trained the warehouse workers in how to do it safely and made sure that they got the protective equipment. They were checked to see if they had any pre-existing medical problems that would've been a problem for them to do the work."
The employee, however, does not feel it is his job responsibility.
"We're warehouse guys. We're not mold and remediation guys," he said. "We're not qualified to be touching that stuff."
Also lacking from the safety equipment provided was a respirator, which the lotto employee said was requested.
Gov. Chris Christie's administration released a press release last month about mold guidance for New Jersey residents recovering from Sandy.
"Those performing remediation work need to be protected with gloves, a respirator, protective clothing and goggles," the press release stated.
Quinn said there was discussion about the lotto employees using respirators, but ultimately it was decided not to use the device.
"There was a concern about a technical issue about whether could be safely operated by the workers or would require special training to operate," he said.
The lotto worker said concerns about the warehouse conditions to the union, and state and national occupational safety agencies all fell on deaf ears.
He then took matters into his own hands.
The employee sent a sample last month of the mold for testing.
It came back with high levels of stachybotrys and aspergillus/penicillium, according to the test results obtained by The Trentonian.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention website states symptoms related to excessive mold exposure include asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis and allergies.
The lotto employee said he and other employees have went to the doctor with flu-like symptoms.
The employee said he has since received medication for the flu-like symptoms, but he is still receiving headaches.
"I never get headaches much, but the last three or four months my head is pounding," he said, adding the headaches disappear on the weekends when he's not working. "It feels so bad, I feel like I'm going to throw up."
The lotto worker said the employees hired an attorney, who sent a letter requesting them to be seen by a state doctor six weeks ago, but they haven't heard anything.
Quinn said the employees have not registered any complaints to management about health concerns.
"They have talked to human resources about an odor in the warehouse," Quinn said of the complaint last month from the union. "In terms of complaining about the safety or the risk of working in the warehouse, they have not brought that to management."
When asked why the five to six crates of storm-damaged scratch-offs are still sitting in the warehouse after the tickets were processed, the New Jersey treasury spokesman said the state is trying to dispose of them safely.
"They've been trying to figure out what to do with the boxes and how they could process them," he said.
Quinn declined to comment if it's proper protocol to keep mold lingering for six months where state employees work.
He added the crates will be removed May 9 from the facility for destruction and remedial action will be taken if the mold is still causing a hazard.
But what might remain in the warehouse is worrisome to the lotto employee.
"They're going to clean that room," he said. "But God knows where else it is."
The warehouse workers' deeds did not go unnoticed.
"They gave us a certificate for going above and beyond the call of duty," the employee said sarcastically.