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Archive for Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Wescoe, cancer link to be probed

Workers report tumors; KU hires epidemiologist to study if building is hazardous

June 7, 2006

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Kansas University's Wescoe Hall is guilty of being ugly, but could it be cancerous?

"A lot of people are quite alarmed," Dorice Elliott, KU associate professor of English and department chair, said. "There are people who've begun to spend less time in the building."

Following reports that at least five people who work in Wescoe have been diagnosed with brain tumors, KU has called on an epidemiologist to study whether the building is somehow hazardous to people's health.

"We don't expect to find a problem," Senior Vice Provost Kathleen McCluskey-Fawcett said. "We're erring on the side of caution because some of the residents of Wescoe are very concerned."

It's the latest accusation directed at the cast-concrete building long targeted for its lack of windows, maze-like hallways and overall gloominess.

"If the state needs a new prison, they've got one right there waiting," said Norman Saul, a KU history professor who has worked in the building since its opening in 1973.

John Neuberger, of the KU School of Medicine's preventive medicine and public health department, will lead what is expected to be a seven-month investigation into the building. The study will include air-quality tests and an epidemiological study of the building's occupants.


A student walks by Wescoe Hall on the Kansas University campus. After reports that at least five people who work in the building have brain tumors, KU has asked for a study on whether the building is a health hazard.

A student walks by Wescoe Hall on the Kansas University campus. After reports that at least five people who work in the building have brain tumors, KU has asked for a study on whether the building is a health hazard.

Neuberger on Tuesday declined to discuss the details of his study and said those would be covered at length in a meeting with concerned building workers set for 3 p.m. today in Wescoe Hall Classroom 3140. He said the study was worth conducting.

McCluskey-Fawcett said KU is negotiating for the cost of the study, which she expected could run anywhere in the range of $25,000 to $100,000.

Earlier worries

Wescoe, named after former KU Chancellor W. Clarke Wescoe, was built in 1973. Two buildings, the old Robinson Gymnasium and Haworth Hall, were razed to make way for the $7.8 million Wescoe.

Today about 400 faculty and staff work in the four-story building that includes classrooms, lecture halls, a food court, and numerous liberal arts departments, including history, philosophy, classics, French and Italian, and Spanish and Portuguese.

"It's never been a pleasant place to work," history professor John Sweets said.

Health concerns have arisen over the years.

Sweets recalled a flap at least a decade ago about Wescoe's water.

"They told us not to drink the water out of the fountains," he said, though he couldn't recall the details.

And the matter apparently never went away for some.

"Some of the old folks don't drink the water because they're worried there might be something in it," said Marjorie Swann, associate professor of English. "We hear a lot about this sort of 'sick building syndrome.'"

And there are worries about poor ventilation in the building.

"Some people joke that there hasn't been any fresh air in Wescoe since 1973," Swann said.

The recent concerns arose this spring when an English department faculty member was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Swann said there have been three cases of faculty members diagnosed with brain tumors in the last year. She said in two cases, the tumors are malignant. She said there also was a diagnosis four years ago and another eight years ago. Four of the cases involved people within the history department, and several people shared the same second-floor corridor.

Elliott, the English department chair, said those diagnosed generally were people who spent long hours in the building.

"I think it's worth checking out," Elliott said. "I also think there are a lot of ... rumors. It's hard to say whether they're founded or not. Wescoe has been subject to these kinds of rumors periodically since it was built."

Finding a cause

Theron Blinkenstaff, a consultant with Occupational and Environmental Medicine Consulting in Tennessee, said studies such as the one planned generally involve obtaining a rate of occurrence among the building's population and then comparing that rate with a reference population.

He said some situations that appear to be clusters of people with the same problem actually turn out not to be and it can be difficult to connect a series of illnesses to a particular problem in a facility.

Science has yet to unravel all the unanswered questions about the cause of brain tumors.

According to the Mayo Clinic's Web page on brain tumors, the lack of understanding about the condition makes it difficult to pinpoint risk factors.

The page says the condition appears to occur more frequently in people exposed to radiation or certain chemicals, such as those who work in oil refining, but a definite link hasn't been proven. Electromagnetic fields and cell phone use have been studied for a possible link, but there is no definitive evidence of a connection to either, the page said.

Mike Heideman, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the department could not comment on the number of people reportedly diagnosed at KU.

"We don't wish to comment on an investigation that is ongoing - just don't want to prejudge things," he said. "Once KU completes that investigation, we'll be prepared to comment on the results."

Such cases are not unheard of. A Chronicle of Higher Education article about an Australian university has circulated through some offices at Wescoe, Elliott said.

According to the Chronicle, officials at RMIT University in Melbourne last month evacuated two floors in a main building after reports of several staff members diagnosed with brain tumors. An investigation is under way.

Swann said she believes KU should follow the Australian university's lead and evacuate faculty and staff during the investigation.

In the meantime, Swann isn't waiting for an evacuation. She has moved out of her office and only drops in when she needs to.

"In my own case, I'm completely changing my work habits and I'm going to stay out of my office."

Comments

LogicMan 8 years, 6 months ago

That's very "bad news" (unfortunate). Hope the afflicted recover well and soon.

LJW reporter and investigators:

Were the folk cell phone and/or cordless phone users? Heavy/light users?

Is Wescoe a "wireless internet hotspot", and if so, how close are transceivers ("nodes") to their offices?

Thanks for reporting on these details soon.

lamb 8 years, 6 months ago

Swann is fortunate that she has the flexibility to work from home. What about the workers who cannot work from home, the clerical staff?

lunacydetector 8 years, 6 months ago

i recall a news report from the early 1970's, rebar for reinforcing concrete was being imported from mexico into the united states. some of the steel was tainted with radioactive material from dismantled radioactive medical equipment-or something radioactive, and the US was having a very difficult time tracing exactly where the rebar had been shipped. it wasn't supposed to be a very great amount of steel. i can't find any reference to this on the internet, and don't know what happened after this news was broadcast.

i too have worked in a place where there seems me to be a high rate of cancer with former co-workers - and it too was built in the early '70's. i always remembered that news report for some reason. it's probably NOTHING, just a news report that was scary and it's just one of those weird things why i remember it.

lunacydetector 8 years, 6 months ago

my memory must be failing me because i did find some references to this rebar from the 1980's. i sincerely thought it was from the early 1970's. should've looked further into this before my previous post. hmmmmm, i'm surprised i was off by so many years, unless it also happened before the 1980's - but i can't find a reference...so, never mind, for now.

Dani Davey 8 years, 6 months ago

LogicMan - Wescoe is a wireless hotspot but only has been for about two years now so that wouldn't account for all of the cases mentioned. Plus, over half of campus now has wireless internet, including the libraries, the unions, Green Hall, Fraser Hall, Budig Hall and Allen Fieldhouse in addition to Wescoe Hall. And that's just as of a year ago when I graduated...I don't know what's been added since then.

Althea Schnacke 8 years, 6 months ago

I believe that every instructional building (or just about) is a hotspot. Student housing isn't yet, just because each room has internet access.

KSChick1 8 years, 6 months ago

maybe the radioactive rebar was part of a conspiracy by the illegals to kill us off so they can take over our country

Confrontation 8 years, 6 months ago

There's mold in a lot of the Wescoe ceiling tiles. May not have anything to do with the cancer, but I would think it would make the employees sick.

OldEnuf2BYurDad 8 years, 6 months ago

"We don't expect to find a problem," Senior Vice Provost Kathleen McCluskey-Fawcett said WHILE SWEATING BULLETS.

Actually, lots of "normal" building materials give off "background radiation". A cinder block will register on a Geiger counter. If we really knew how much radiation we're all getting in the natural world, we'd all either panic or quit worrying about it. We're constantly getting zapped, in small doses.

KSChick1 8 years, 6 months ago

I like to microwave stuff while talking on the cell phone and sitting on a cinder block in Wescoe, tripping people walking by with radioactive rebar. And then I go to a roundabout and clog dance while eating salamanders from Baker Wetlands.

KSChick1 8 years, 6 months ago

LOL sbsow

I may drive while doing some of that stuff!

It's hard to hold onto those endangered salamanders when they're smothered in ketchup and I'm trying to eat, drive and talk on the cell phone at the same time.

bankboy119 8 years, 6 months ago

KS, I thought you were having a salamander salad.

Godot 8 years, 6 months ago

I know someone who died of brain cancer recently. He didn't work in Wescoe, but he often visited the houses of people who did.......

KSChick1 8 years, 6 months ago

sometimes it's a salamander salad and sometimes they're fried and dipped in ketchup

kinda depends on how I feel that day

Godot 8 years, 6 months ago

The researcher should also track the incidence of depression and paranoia among the staff and faculty in Wescoe and compare it to the rest of the campus. I would like to see the results of that study.

ASBESTOS 8 years, 6 months ago

Why oh WHY does the state of Kansas always find some obscure consultant that is out of state to do these surveys and investigations. How come they are not hiring from the Environmental, Health and Safety professionals from with in the state to do this survey? I would get Dr. Keller from Lenexa in a heartbeat to look this over. He da man!

"Theron Blinkenstaff, a consultant with Occupational and Environmental Medicine Consulting in Tennessee, said studies such as the one planned generally involve obtaining a rate of occurrence among the building's population and then comparing that rate with a reference population."

adavid 8 years, 6 months ago

radioactive rebar? domestic terrorism?

lastcall4oh 8 years, 6 months ago

Asbestos...

Theron Blinkenstaff was quoted, he is not the one doing the work. The individual running the study, Dr. Neuberger, is a professor at KU Med in Kansas City.

Godot 8 years, 6 months ago

Theron Blinkenstaff. I bet the reporter made that name up.

Godot 8 years, 6 months ago

Ha! Sophia, it is "blickenstaff," not "blinkenstaff." Did you even check credentials before you quoted him?

lastcall4oh 8 years, 6 months ago

"Dr. Theron Blickenstaff is a specialist in occupational and environmental medicine. His education background includes degrees in biology, medicine, and epidemiology; he is board certified in occupational medicine and in preventive medicine. He was a staff physician at Eastman Chemical Company for several years, concerned with occupational toxicology, the effect of chemical exposure, and the like. He has treated or evaluated a host of persons with respiratory complaints..."

From:

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF TENNESSEE SPECIAL WORKERS' COMPENSATION APPEALS PANEL AT KNOXVILLE June 1, 2005 Session

PAUL JOHNSON, JR. v. SNAP-ON INCORPORATED

Direct Appeal from the Chancery Court for Washington County No. 34180 G. Richard Johnson, Chancellor

ASBESTOS 8 years, 6 months ago

Lastcall4oh,

My point was not to disparage Dr. Blickenstaff, but we have a LOT of Dr.s around here in Industrial Hygiend and can do epi studies, my point is why Kansas always runs to out of state consultants before we hire our own. Dr. Keller has a long CV, a boatload of experience and has worked on some very important situations nationwide, and he is not the only one, just one I would hire in a minute. Dr K has degrees in Chemical and Environmental Engineering and is board certified as a CIH. Must be the at someone at KU knew the good Dr. from TN. Was it a no bid contract?

ASBESTOS 8 years, 6 months ago

BTW, a medical doctor may not be the best selection for a "building related illness". He may be a specialist in cancers and human illness, but as I have stated we have "specialists in Indoor Air Quality Issues and Indoor Environmental Quality issues that are also board certified by their representative professional organizations. If the Building is "sick" a building specialist will need to be called in.

Senitivity is one issue. Exposure is another issue. Organism or compound is another issue. Dose is another issue.

All have to be evaluated to find the answer. THere are a lot more issues here than simple human illness. You ned more than a MD or Occupational MD to ferret this one out.

Godot 8 years, 6 months ago

"Was it a no bid contract?"

that's all we have at KU.

lastcall4oh 8 years, 6 months ago

And as I said Asbestos, you can not assume that Theron is doing the study, just because he was quoted in the story. Is the Mayo clinic involved in the study? They were quoted in the story as well.

Dr. Neuberger is running the study, and from all that I have read and heard on the news so far, they have not said who is actually doing the testing.

Godot 8 years, 6 months ago

In fact, it seems to go this way: we have a colleague we really want to promote. What project can we devise that will make a win-win for the colleague and the university?

duh 8 years, 6 months ago

kschick1, your comments suck. i don't think they are that funny and i wish you would just lay off the keyboard and stick with thinking of jokes to tell the rest of your junior high class.

justsomewench 8 years, 6 months ago

can we just blame fluorescent lights?

(i hate 'em.)

dizzy_from_your_spin 8 years, 6 months ago

And, by all means, test the water while you're at it. Then, perhaps, the profs can start drinking the water...and washing their hands... and flushing the toilets.

xenophonschild 8 years, 6 months ago

I actually think Wescoe is beautiful; but then, I had classes in old Haworth and Wescoe was a tremendous improvement.

Hope this all turns out to be a series of unfortunate coincidences.

walleye9898 8 years, 6 months ago

Theron B has nothing to do with this study other than the media made the choice to contact some out of state person to get their comment.

Dr. Neuberger is from the KU Med School and is an expert in this area. There will be others from the Med School supporting his team. Investigating the brina tumors is an epidemiological study. Also, Dr. Neuberger has hired an IH firm from the K.C., KS side to do the building air monitoring/IAQ sampling. This firm is lead by a CIH, former KS grad with over 30+ years of IH experience. The IH team (4 people) has over 100 years of experience.

Also, Dr. Neuberger's team is being supported by KU Environmetnal Health & Safety staff. Their Director is an IH with over 20 years in the field. Other EHS staff involved have all sorts of expertise in various areas. There are plenty of qualified people involved in investigating this building over the years and during this study.

I know Dr. Keller and yes he is an excellent IH.

If you want to know what is in your drinking water, read the City of Lawrence and KU EHS annual water quality reports.

The issue here is for people to quit reading worthless sensational journalism or spouting off about something they know little about. Understand that there is no definitive cause of brain tumors. take the time to truly research the subject.

The important thing to see here is the University has in the past and is doing the right thing by investigating the perceived fears of their employees and will take action if necessary. It is human nature and a traumatic/stressful situation when people you know, work with and have relationships on a daily basis get illnesses and often die.

Godot 8 years, 6 months ago

"The important thing to see here is the University has in the past and is doing the right thing by investigating the perceived fears of their employees and will take action if necessary. It is human nature and a traumatic/stressful situation when people you know, work with and have relationships on a daily basis get illnesses and often die."

Like I said earlier, I hope they track the incidence of depression and paranioa in the building, as well.

KSChick1 8 years, 6 months ago

Hey DUH

I can make jokes and strangely enough, people laugh at them and that's the point. THEY"RE JOKES.

Loosen up or bite the fattest part of my a**

I don't care which you choose

KSChick1 8 years, 6 months ago

read's DUH's post and gets hurt feelings

crawls into jr high class and cries

vows to never post again

vows to become better person due to criticism by someone whose name is DUH

!!!NOT!!!

mccartrc 8 years, 6 months ago

i think it's a bit funny that the research is being conducted by members of the institution being investigated . . . i mean, normally there is an outside source called in during cases like this . . .

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