A team investigating cancer deaths of several ECU professors have provided federal authorities with more information about the building they worked in.
ECU’s Environmental Health and Safety Facilities Services team last week provided information about the A-Wing of the Brewster Building to the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The institute sought the information during an Aug. 24 meeting with ECU official after concerns about the building were raised by faculty.
Jeannine Hutson, director of News Services for ECU, also said that the NIOSH plans to follow a two-track process, similar to a previous investigation by ECU. An occupational safety team will work with the university’s health and safety office and facilities services to assess the building, while a federal medical team will work with an ECU medical team headed by Dr. Paul Barry to assess cases.
In July, ECU’s American Association of University Professors chapter wrote a letter to the university’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety regarding the deaths of four faculty members from pancreatic cancer.
In the letter, history professor Karin L. Zipf said that the deaths occurred in 2011, 2018 and 2019. She also noted that a fifth long-serving member of the faculty was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this summer.
- Frank Murphy, associate professor of philosophy, died in 2011 aged approximately 65-70.
- Wen Wang, assistant professor of political science, died in 2018 at age 47.
- Randall Parker, professor of economics, died in 2018 at age 58.
- Kenneth Wilson, professor of sociology, died in 2019 at age 72.
A fifth professor, Bodo Nischan, was an occupant of the Brewster Building for 32 years. In April of 2001, Nischan was diagnosed with a “rare and fast progressing brain cancer.” Niscahn died in October of that year at age 62.
The university said Brewster-A Wing underwent an indoor environmental assessment in 2019 by the Office of Environmental Health and Safety. All sampling results met normal recommended standards, the university said.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reviewed that assessment and confirmed the office’s findings.
“It was determined to be thorough and comprehensive, with conditions representing a typical building that is 50-plus years old and no indication of hazardous operations previously conducted there,” said Catie Armstrong, NCDHHS Communications Assistant.
The school’s spokesperson said ECU plans to continue working with NCDHHS and NIOSH.
“To date, no building-related health concerns have been identified, but we will wait for these agencies to complete their assessments and provide reports before drawing any conclusions,” Hutson said.
The ECU AAUP has called for further assessment of the Brewster Building’s air, water and material for potential toxins, including asbestos, which was omitted from the 2019 study. The university is seeking a consultant.
“The university is actively working to hire a consultant to conduct the asbestos assessment that includes material, air and water sampling,” Hutson said. “According to Bill Koch, associate vice chancellor for campus safety and auxiliary services, unless something unforeseen occurs, he expects the consultant to provide their final asbestos assessment report about two months after they begin their work.”
The AAUP also asked for a case study and analysis of severe illnesses among faculty and staff in the building to include an analysis of the statistical significance of said illness, and that the UNC system and state prioritize the building’s replacement.
“ECU has no timeline for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health-led studies,” Hutson said. “Cancer case studies can take time because they need medical records and detailed information; sometimes that means interviewing family members and physicians.”
An August release from the Office of Environmental Health and Safety said that, based on available information, no evidence of the health issues being building-related have been found. They also clarified that water in the building comes from Greenville Utilities Commission and undergoes regular testing.
“We will continue to work with subject matter experts — local, state and national — to assess the building to provide timely answers to our campus community. We and our staff remain committed to the health and safety of our campus and all who learn and work here,” the release said.