Archive for Friday, July 7, 2006

Wescoe results anxiously awaited

Ex-worker with tumor says air quality was not good in building

July 7, 2006


Weeks after Kansas University announced the start of air-quality testing at Wescoe Hall, employees still await word whether it's OK to breathe in the building.

The wait has some building workers nervous.

"I honestly believe if they had gotten back scrupulously clean test results, we would have gotten them back immediately," said Marjorie Swann, associate professor of English. "We have heard nothing."

But KU officials say the results could come soon.

"I would assume sometime in the middle of this month we should start seeing something," said Don Steeples, vice provost for scholarly support. "For that matter, it could be any day now."

Brain tumor concerns

KU in early June launched an investigation into whether the building is causing health problems. That was in response to alarm spurred by what many saw as an unusually high number of brain tumors diagnosed among building workers.

The investigation, expected to last about seven months, began with the air-quality tests. Those tests took less than a week to perform, Steeples said.

But the test results aren't finished yet, and the hold-up may be with the commercial laboratory that analyzes them, Steeples said.

Originally, reports of five faculty members diagnosed with brain tumors spurred the investigation. KU then added another case to the tally.

Daniel Bays, a longtime KU history department faculty member and chairman who now works in Michigan, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1996. His case is among those included in the current count, Swann said.

Bays was diagnosed with meningioma, a tumor on the outer covering of the brain. His tumor, about the size of an egg, was benign.

He had long heard gripes about Wescoe, he said, but when he discovered the tumor he didn't seriously think about his working conditions.

"I remember my wife saying in a scolding (and joking) way, 'You spend too much time in your office. Look what happened,'" he said.

Bays said he never liked the building.

"Mostly, the air quality was not good, but it didn't bother me enough not to work there," he said.

The investigation

KU hired in-house investigator John Neuberger, a professor in the KU School of Medicine's preventative medicine and public health department, to lead the investigation.

Neuberger said Wednesday that he did not know when early findings would be available and declined to discuss the investigation.

KU spokeswoman Lynn Bretz said the university has no reason to believe Wescoe contains any health hazards.

Bretz said Neuberger has to analyze and interpret a lot of data, which takes time.

"He'll contact us when he's ready to report on that," she said.

And, at that point, the university would contact Wescoe occupants and schedule a meeting with them.

"They will be the first to hear those results," she said.

Neuberger's testing is expected to include an epidemiological investigation, reviewing employees who've worked in the building. And there will also be environmental testing.

The air-quality tests will look for radon, carbon dioxide, mold and other substances, including:

l Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. VOCs are the unhealthy emissions of numerous solids and liquids, including paints, aerosol sprays, disinfectants and air fresheners. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, some cause cancer in animals and are suspected of causing cancer in humans.

l Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. They are the chemicals produced by the partial burning of coal, oil and gas, tobacco or other organic substances. People can be exposed to PAHs by breathing contaminated air, drinking bad water and other ways.

Bad building

In the late 1960s, KU planned to build a Wescoe tower that would have been more than 20 stories, what then would have been the tallest building in Kansas.

But budget problems quashed those plans and eventually the squatty, four-story Wescoe was built and opened in 1973.

"This has been a dreary building from the beginning," said Albert Cook, associate professor emeritus of English, who continues to spend time in Wescoe.

Complaints are nothing new.

In one letter, typed in 1975 and kept in files at the Spencer Research Library, a group of instructors griped to administration about temperature controls and a long period without air conditioning or blowers that left them "with overheated, stagnant, smoke-polluted air in our windowless rooms."

"If present practices persist, they are bound to result in even more instances of ill-health and ill-humor than have occurred so far," the instructors wrote to then-assistant to the chancellor, Max Lucas.

Lucas responded in short order, saying KU was looking into the matter.

"As you might imagine, yours was not the first letter that I received," he said, "nor do I imagine will it be the last."


Janet Lowther 11 years, 10 months ago

You know, I recon the vast majority of second hand smoke exposure I have had came in Wescoe Hall in the '70s.

My Logic professor would chain smoke in class so all the other smokers would light up too. Back then some of the windows could be opened, but that did very little to let out the miasma of cigarette smoke. I always had a roaring headache by time that 50 minute class was over.

Christine Pennewell Davis 11 years, 10 months ago

so what if the test does not give everyone the results they want? Does that mean lawrence is just a fluke of brain cancer paitents?

yourworstnightmare 11 years, 10 months ago

The only rational explanation is that god is punishing these liberal academics for undermining christian values.

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