Professors raise questions about safety of Smith Hall during public forum
Professors from the College of Business Administration believe Smith Hall might be giving them cancer.
Despite working to address their concerns, university officials have said there is no cause for alarm.
“We might be sitting on a time bomb,” said Crina Tarasi, professor of marketing, during a public forum on Wednesday. “When is the next case going to appear?”
Five former and current faculty members from the marketing and hospitality services administration and marketing departments have been diagnosed with brain cancer over the past 30 years, according to testimony from various CBA professors. During the last 20 years, two have died from the illness.
During a forum between administration and faculty on Wednesday, CBA faculty expressed their concerns – which professors said have been largely ignored – in front of CBA Dean Charles Crespy and Dan Lyons, the environmental administrator for risk management and environmental health and safety.
What is worrisome to some faculty members is that five of their peers contracted brain cancer.
Central Michigan University and a third party company commissioned multiple environmental studies. The data, which was sent to the Department of Health and Human Services, concluded that Smith Hall displayed no evidence of a threat to public health.
CBA professors were not convinced, citing inaccuracies within the report, including the omission of at least one employee they know to have contracted cancer. Professors don’t believe the findings in the report are accurate because they feel the majority of it is based on information gathered from them and administrators, not the DHHS.
According to information collected by the Clark Historical Library, Smith Hall was originally built in 1933 and was the College Elementary School, which replaced the Training School that burned down just years prior. It was renovated once in 1980, according to the Smith Hall environmental report filed by the DHHS’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The report was written on March 27.
NIOSH did not conduct the investigations, but assessed the data CMU and Fibertec Industries, a contracted third party, collected in 2005 and 2011.
The report states that after collecting the university's data from tests for potential chemical and pesticide exposure, as well as electromagnetic field surveys, NIOSH found no reason to believe the building or its surrounding environment would cause medical problems.
NIOSH officials also emphasized that cancer is one of the most prevalent causes of death in the U.S. and the suspicion of a link between the professors' diagnoses is unfounded. NIOSH noted the tumors found in the brains of the deceased faculty members could have been the result of the metastasis of other cancer cells within the bodies of the professors.
The NIOSH report suggested worried professors and staff should receive screenings to confirm they don’t have any of the early signs of cancer.
A sense of fear
A quick walk down the halls of Smith shows a multitude of office doors with sticky notes announcing to students that the professors have temporarily moved out of the building.
The sticky notes, however, do not give any explanation why faculty moved.
Faculty dwelling in Smith Hall have become so concerned about working there it has led them to vacate their offices, holding office hours outside of the building or in the Charles V. Park Library.
Provost Michael Gealt said after three different tests and seeing all the evidence provided by the report, there was no indication the building could be giving people cancer.
"We have had NIOSH, the highest authority on this in the land, look into the issue and the building," Gealt said. "We try to make all our decisions based on data. When you have a case that seems unexplained, the natural reaction is fear or some kind of extreme concern. We're just not sure what we can do to assure people that the building is safe."
Jon Kujat, manager of Risk Management, Environmental Health Services and Safety Management, was one of the individuals involved with the 2005 study.
Kujat's office is housed in Smith as well, and he said if he's comfortable in there, it should prove there is no cause for alarm.
"I work in this building about 50 to 60 hours a week," he said. "If I had a concern, I would not be doing that. I'm not being flippant about that either. I feel bad that people have gotten cancer, but there's always a strong chance anyone could eventually contract cancer for any reason."
According to his research, Kujat said a main cause for primary, not secondary, brain tumors is ionized radiation. Kujat said he did a radon study and found that CMU's campus has no presence of ionized radiation.
Kujat added that the two types of cancer found in the five faculty members are both dissimilar types of cancer, and were most likely not primary brain tumors, but possibly metastasis from cancerous sites elsewhere in the professors' bodies. However, due to the health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, he and Gealt were both unable to share definitive medical evidence that the tumors were from secondary metastasis.
Furthering his assertion that the building is safe, Kujat said the building still contains asbestos, but only the amount that is federally allowed – 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter.
The asbestos is not exposed, and is only known to cause cancer in the lungs, Gealt said.
Despite holding true to the findings in the report, Crespy was compelled to hold the open forum to discuss the topic after a number of professors tearfully addressed the issue with him throughout the past academic year.
Professors wanted Crespy to find a solution including, but not limited to: Finding them new office space, initiating a new investigation or taking the matter before the Central Michigan University Board of Trustees.
Some CBA faculty members are calling for additional tests on the building to make sure there is nothing harmful in the area, like chemicals, which they feel might be playing a role in the diagnoses.
Faculty members also called for an internal investigation and the hiring of an epidemiologist. Crespy said coming up with the financial support for these solutions would be difficult, if not impossible.
“For me, the big question is, what is it that we can do that would be rigorous enough that if nothing were found, it would assuage concerns?” Crespy said. “And, if something were found, would it direct us to do something meaningful? I’m not sure what that is.”
Crespy added he doubted university officials would consider helping financially as it already has substantial investments in the College of Medicine, the Biosciences Building and a hefty deferred maintenance budget.
A potential lack of support from CMU has left some faculty members awe-struck and distraught.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Larry Lepisto, a marketing and hospitality professor. “We are employees of Central Michigan University. If there were athletes that had some issue, they would throw millions of dollars at them. But if professors had an issue, then they’ll push the costs down to that unit. The trustees should be the people saying, ‘let’s take care of this and figure this out and do whatever it takes.’”
Professors said the palpable fear of a cancer outbreak will send negative messages to new faculty members who are hired for next year.
“We have lost colleagues, and we have colleagues battling (brain cancer) and we have colleagues going through medical problems and we can see how it impacts them,” Tarasi said. “I think it’s a very natural concern. I can’t be the nice, cheerful, welcoming person to new faculty anymore.
“I’ll honestly feel guilty and that guilt will show through.”