Case Gone Cold

Yuiko Sugino/Guardian

After almost two years of upset, the “cancer cluster” at the UCSD Literature Building seems to have finally faded from interest.

The literature department has expressed its wish to close the case for good after three separate studies failed to pinpoint the cause of the cluster — and after university officials worked with the Building Committee to implement several cautionary measures.

“The reports confirmed to us that, as far as we know, the building is safe,” Literature Department Chair Oumelbanine Zhiri said. “Because of that, the elevators are back to normal. Life is back to normal.”

An unusually high incidence of cancer among staff and faculty working in the Literature Building — eight cases between 2000 and 2008 — has been the source of public scrutiny since early 2007.

Panic among those with offices in the building was heightened by a June 2008 report by UCSD professor and epidemiologist Cedric Garland, who pointed to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) being emitted from the building’s elevator equipment as a possible cause of cancer. (Garland had also investigated a possible cluster in the Chancellor’s Complex.) According to his report, the likelihood that the building’s cancer rate was caused by chance alone was one in 3,333.

As a result, two elevators in the Literature Building were temporarily shut down, and staff were vacated from offices with suspected high exposure to the EMFs.

In February 2009, about 100 department affiliates — some carrying a coffin down Library Walk — staged a demonstration, arguing that the university’s response was insufficient. Demonstrators presented Chancellor Marye Anne Fox with a petition with 1,300 signatures that called for immediate action, including a relocation of the literature department.

In May 2009, some classes were moved into Sixth College trailers, and some faculty chose to hold office hours at on-campus cafes or in the Cross-Cultural Center.

One participating student, who asked to remain anonymous, said the university should have at least evacuated the building while the studies were being conducted.

“I was most upset because — even if the evidence was inconclusive — the university was really slow to find new classrooms,” he said. “I stayed in that building all year. The whole department was concerned. It was disrespectful and irresponsible for the university to not find an alternative place. It seemed like the well-being of the students and staff wasn’t important.”

Environmental Health and Safety Director Stephen Benedict decided to hire UCLA epidemiologist Leeka Kheifets to investigate EMF levels in the building. Though Kheifets admitted that building employees showed an unusually high incidence of breast cancer and recommended further investigation, her July 2009 report concluded EMF levels were low. Kheifets pointed out that epidemiological evidence does not support an association between EMF and breast cancer in the first place.

The report also recommended that the building be equipped with air conditioning to reduce humidity that would allow for the growth of molds and fungi.

According to department chair Zhiri, the completion of the air-conditioning system will be the final step in the university’s public agreement with the staff and faculty.

“We feel that the administration has done what was agreed upon to do,” he said.

Ninyo & Moore, a geotechnical and environmental sciences firm, was hired by university officials to perform a chemical-trace analysis of air samples in the Literature Building. The firm tested for various air-quality parameters, including temperature, relative humidity, carbon-monoxide levels, carbon-dioxide levels, ultra-fine particles and a broad spectrum of volatile organic analytes.

The firm released a report in December 2009 concluding that it “could not find evidence to corroborate a health concern. … Based on all of the findings mentioned above, no further action is recommended concerning further specialized investigation of indoor air quality in the Literature Building at this time.”

According to Building Committee Chair and literature professor Roddey Reid, though the air-conditioning installation was expected to be finished by the end of Winter Quarter, the process was delayed partly due to the chemical-trace study, and he now expects the installation to be completed by the end of Spring Quarter.

The installation of air conditioning throughout the Literature Building — a project expected to cost over $100,000 — was one of five possible solutions proposed in September 2010 by the Building Committee to “improve the workplace environment.” The committee also proposed that the university initiate a toxicological study, make improvements to ventilation in the elevator room and replace the elevator’s hydraulic oil with soy-based vegetable oil — all of which have been completed.

A February 2010 study performed by the Field Management Services Corporation to measure the magnitude and vector direction of the elevator’s power frequency magnetic fields concluded that magnetic-field levels throughout occupied areas of the building were not unsafe.

“We are reasonably confident that right now the building is clean, or as clean as can be ascertained by science,” Reid said. “What it is for us to have all these mitigation measures, it [has] allowed the department and its members to resume normal operations. It’s been very disruptive of us as an academic unit, and has allowed people to move on from this very trying experience in the way of health issues.”

Readers can contact Yelena Akopian at [email protected].