The vapors, which a federal study shows can irritate asthma or allergies if inhaled for a short period, are the result of construction on a new courthouse just outside the El Paso County Metro Detention Center and several inmates have complained, said Lt. Cliff Northam, a spokesman for the sheriff's office. The county has also received complaints about the air in the judicial building next to the jail.
In response, about two weeks ago the county asked that construction equipment be moved away from doors and air intakes, he said.
Inmates say the air has improved slightly, but overall it is murky -- especially in the evenings.
"We're still breathing it," Douglas Eugene Wilson, an inmate at the jail said several days ago via phone.
About three months ago, a consultant outlined numerous safety and health concerns at the crowded jail, including a shoddy ventilation system. Commenting on the situation at a Nov. 22 county commissioners meeting, Sheriff Terry Maketa said even a "small campfire" could produce enough smoke to suffocate prisoners because of the poor airflow.
The problems led commissioners to vote to shut Metro by the end of June. The 350 prisoners will be transferred to the county's Criminal Justice Center in coming months.
More than a week ago, the county's Environmental Services Department screened the jail for carbon monoxide, said Ann Ervin, spokeswoman for the county. She said they found no health risks. Inspectors detected less than 0 parts per million, which does not exceed the 50 parts per million allowed by federal labor and health law.
However, tests were only conducted in the lobby and administrative offices on the jail's first floor. None were conducted in inmate areas, Ervin said.
Officials plan to install charcoal filters within a week in an attempt to improve the air, Ervin added.
Wilson said the county should have tested inmate areas because fumes are likely to rise to the second floor, where inmates reside.
"I know they say they are taking care of it," Wilson said. "But then why are my eyes itching?"
-- Michael de Yoanna