Kansas University is moving forward with a $3.5 million renovation of Wescoe Hall even as it launches an investigation into whether the building has caused brain tumors.
"We'll deal with things one step at a time," said Don Steeples, vice provost for scholarly support. "If we find we've got a problem, then we'll deal with it in an appropriate manner."
About 30 people who work inside the building met with epidemiologist John Neuberger on Wednesday to learn about the seven-month study.
"If it's concentrated in one area and I happen to be in that area, yes I'm concerned," said Paul Kelton, assistant professor of history. "I hope that KU thoroughly investigates this."
There have been at least five reported cases of brain tumors diagnosed in KU faculty who work in the building. About 400 people work in Wescoe.
Neuberger said the average instance of brain tumors in the general U.S. population is 6.6 per 100,000.
One case at KU dates back about eight years, a faculty member has said. The most recent case of an English department faculty member distressed employees and sparked the investigation.
"I'd like to be sure I work in a safe building," said Karl Brooks, associate professor of history and environmental studies.
Neuberger, a professor in the KU School of Medicine's preventative medicine and public health department, said the work will begin this week with air-quality tests.
The air sampling will look for volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, radon, carbon dioxide, mold and other chemicals. It will measure lead and asbestos. They'll measure air flow and electromagnetic fields. Initial test results will come back in a few weeks, officials said.
A parallel investigation will look at the employees. Those diagnosed with cancer or a benign brain tumor will be asked for access to their pathology reports.
Many Wescoe workers complain about poor ventilation in the 1973 vintage building.
"No question, the ventilation could be improved," Steeples said.
Some who work in the building worry about emissions from nearby Malott Hall. Others wonder about the days when smoking was permissible in the building. Then there's mold, asbestos or other substances. But many who work at Wescoe shrugged when asked what they thought a potential cause could be.
"In many ways, this is really a mystery," said Marjorie Swann, associate professor of English.
It's one that could be difficult to solve.
"Sometimes you find things," Neuberger said. "Sometimes you don't."
Neuberger will tackle a riddle that has frustrated those involved in similar studies.
"It's fairly hard to determine a cause and effect," said Robert Tufel, executive director of the National Brain Tumor Foundation.
When more than a dozen employees of the Chevron Corporate Petroleum Research Facility in La Habra, Calif., were diagnosed with brain tumors, the case sparked a lengthy investigation that ultimately found no link to the cases, according to the foundation.
A three-year investigation at a BP Amoco Corp. research facility in Naperville, Ill., several years ago also failed to pinpoint a specific cause, though investigators determined exposure to ionizing radiation and n-hexane may have been a factor.
And reported cases among employees of a New Haven, Conn., plant for the jet-engine maker Pratt and Whitney also spurred an investigation that is continuing.
Carol Shea's husband, John Shea, worked in the plant and died of glioblastoma, a rare brain tumor.
Shea, a Connecticut resident, said she knows of no cases to look to for hope that the investigation into the death of her husband and others could reach a conclusive resolution.
"This is the largest study of its kind ever," she said. "This is probably going to be the one that's going to be helping other people."