Lit. Building Cancer Investigation Inconclusive

Following a year of heated campus protests, electromagnetic fields (EMF) have been ruled out as the source of cancer in an abnormally high number of former faculty in the Literature Building, though the exact cause of the suspected cluster remains uncertain.

A June 2008 study conducted by epidemiologist and UCSD professor Cedric Garland found a possible connection between the cases of breast cancer among staff in the building — with eight cases reported in between 2000 and 2006 — and electromagnetic fields (EMFs) in the building’s elevator equipment on the first floor.

The report also concluded that the incidence of invasive breast cancer found in the building was four to five times the expected incidence in the general California population.

The university’s apparent slow response to vacate the building following Garland’s report led members of the literature community to stage two separate demonstrations last year.

After the initial report, the university hired UCLA epidemiologist Leeka Kheifets to perform a follow-up investigation.

“I am far from convinced that levels of EMF exposure in the building are high or that the elevator is the culprit in the apparent cluster,” Kheifet concluded in her report. “The measurements taken are very reassuring and are well below any standards anywhere in the world.”

However, Kheifets said that there does appear to be a cancer cluster at the building. Her report added that the “incidence of breast cancer among female staff in the building may be about 3 to 3.5 times higher than what could be expected based on the age-specific breast cancer incidence rates of San Diego county.”

She also agreed with Garland’s recommendation to convert some of the rooms in the building into infrequent use areas.

“I don’t think the cluster is due to EMF because breast cancer is not the disease that has been particularly associated [with EMF], and secondly, the levels of EMF are extremely low,” Kheifets said. “I don’t understand why there was a cluster there. Cancers can and do occur by chance alone, and differentiating between those that have occurred by chance and those that might have a common cause is often difficult. ”

Kheifets’s report concluded that only a further comprehensive epidemiologic study could evaluate the true risk of the Literature Building.

“It is not a proper epidemiologic study, and is subject to a lot of uncertainty,” Kheifets said. “You can reduce uncertainty to some extent with a proper study but the numbers will remain small, and thus conclusions uncertain.”

According to Building Committee Chair Roddey Reid, the inhabitants of five rooms with higher EMF levels have been moved into new spaces while new walls are installed, and they will probably be converted into smaller office or storage rooms.

“The rooms listed are part of a list of rooms that are having new walls installed to create distance [two to five feet] between the sources of EMF… and anyone who might be in the room,” Reid said. “The EMF drops off at a certain distance.”

Korean literature professor Jae-Choon Lee was moved from his office in Room 223 to a room in the remote Building 611, located near the Engineering II building.

“I was told that I had to move because of the cancer situation,” Lee said. “I don’t know too much about it, but it’s scary. It caused me anxiety while I was in the building and I was told not to use certain tables near the [elevator’s] generator.”

On Sept. 18, 2009, the Building Committee reached a consensus to move ahead with the following five proposed actions: initiation of a toxicological study, make improvements to ventilation in the elevator room, replacement of the elevator’s hydraulic oil with soy-based vegetable oil, the installation of new walls to isolate EMF in designated rooms and the installation of air conditioning throughout the building.

“To be super cautious, what we’ve done is we’ve insulated and arranged furniture, basically, so no one could get easily get to the place of the elevator [motor],” Fox said. “We’ve protected anyone from the elevator. The survey of the literature indicates very clearly that EMF has never been implicated for breast cancer.”

Though EMF has been ruled out as a cause for the cancer cluster, officials still remain uncertain about what could account for the high incidence of cancer among employees working in the literature department.

The department recently hired Ninyo and Moore, a geotechnical and environmental sciences firm, to perform a chemical analysis of air samples in the literature building. The results of the investigation are expected to be available in two weeks, at which point university officials will meet with the Office of Environmental Health and Safety to discuss further action.

“They are looking for a wide range of possible toxins,” Reid said. “They’re going to look to see if we have normal or high levels. If they are high, we will run more tests to study and explain why.”

“If there is still toxic substance, it will change any plans we might have had,” Literature Department Chair Oumelbanine Zhiri said. “There will be no point in building walls. We will have to rethink.”

Zhiri and Reid pointed out that that because the diagnoses of breast cancer occurred between 2000 and 2006 — and because there is often a long induction period between exposure to a harmful substance and cancer — it might be difficult to ever determine the cause of the apparent cluster.

“Whatever might have been toxic in 1990 might have disappeared, or is no longer there in toxic quantities,” Reid said. “It’s been very hard to live with the uncertainty of not knowing what’s caused this, or not knowing if there’s going to be any solutions or actions taken. The question still remains as to the cause… The causes may have exited 10 to 15 years ago, and may have disappeared.”

When asked about the current status of investigations, Chancellor Marye Anne Fox cited a June 2009 report form the National Institute for Occupation Health and Safety, which concluded that there was no evidence that the reported cancers were associated with conditions at the Literature Building — that eight employees with breast cancer would not be an unusual number at one of many buildings on a large campus. The report recommended no further investigation.

“They gave us a very strong letter saying the same thing that the [Centers for Disease Control] people had said, which was, there was no evidence for anything to worry about,” Fox said “I feel pretty confident that we can go ahead with using the building and that there won’t be any problem.”

However, Zhiri pointed out that the NIOSH report contradicts both Garland’s and Kheifets’, and said that it came as a bit of a surprise.

“The office does not take seriously that report because it did not take into account all the data,” Reid said. “It is considered inadequate.”

Additional reporting by Ann Yu.

Readers can contact Yelena Akopian at [email protected].

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