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Archive for Saturday, August 12, 2006

Medical findings prompt testing, scrutiny at Wescoe Hall

August 12, 2006

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Air-quality tests at Kansas University's Wescoe Hall have uncovered a problem the building's occupants surmised for years: dead air.

"There are rooms in Wescoe that don't have any air flow," said Don Steeples, vice provost for scholarly support, in mid-July.

Crews have begun work to get air circulating throughout all rooms in the building.

The stale-air diagnosis is a preliminary finding of air-quality tests conducted in early June in response to concerns that an unusually high number of brain tumors have been diagnosed among the building's occupants.

Complete results are being analyzed and won't be released for two or three weeks, Steeples said. So far, he said he has not learned of any test results that have been cause for alarm.

"If there was a red flag out there, we would know that by now," Steeples said. "We have not gotten any indication that there is any danger to health."

Bad air flow doesn't surprise some who work in the building.

"We've all complained for years that there is no air flow," said Dodie Coker, administrative assistant in the philosophy department.

But Coker said she was glad to hear some word about the testing.

"I thought, 'Well, at least they haven't forgotten us,'" she said. "That's a start. That's a good start."

But many are awaiting the full report. The study, led by John Neuberger, a professor in the KU School of Medicine's preventative medicine and public health department, includes testing for radon, carbon dioxide, mold and other substances.

This month, Neuberger is expected to begin an epidemiological study, exploring the health histories of many who've worked in the building. The results are expected in January.

It's the results of the broader investigation that many, such as Ted Wilson, await.

Wilson, a history professor and acting chair of the history department, has an office inside Wescoe. Faculty with offices on either side of Wilson's have been diagnosed with tumors.

"That worries obviously not just me, but many people," Wilson said. "The number of tumors seems to be out of the ordinary for a population of this size."

Wescoe has been the target of criticism since it opened in 1973. Many consider the squat building to be an eyesore and a dreary workplace. And accusations that the building is somehow bad for people's health are nothing new.

Norman Yetman, recently retired professor of American studies and sociology, said KU explored Wescoe's indoor air quality several years ago in response to concerns about several secretaries getting sick.

According to a 2001 report prepared by KU's department of environment, health and safety (EHS):

¢ The department had never detected airborne contaminants above the detection limit.

¢ A 1999 air-quality screening for microbial contamination found bacteria and fungi, but in concentrations below the federal contamination limit.

¢ The EHS department concluded there was no data indicating health concerns related to microbial contamination.

In the recent testing of 13 rooms, more than half had some level of air-flow problems, Steeples said.

"We've had complaints through the years that the rooms feel stuffy, and that's why," Steeples said.

In a press for energy efficiency in the early 1980s, KU altered the circulation system so that when rooms hit the set temperature, air ceases to flow, Steeples said.

Now, crews will work to make sure that air dampers, which control the flow of air, remain partially open at all times, he said.

With the system no longer controlled by temperature, that could mean that some rooms feel particularly chilly, Steeples said. And that wouldn't be good in the winter months.

"We're clearly not going to have 60-degree rooms in the wintertime," Steeples aid. "We're going to address the problem for the long term. ... How we're going to fix it is still under consideration."

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