Cancer cluster at UCSD
Elevator in literature building cited as potential cause; faculty wants more action from administration
By Amanda Ripley
A higher-than-normal rate of cancer diagnoses in the building that houses UCSD’s literature department has been the subject of near-constant discussion in recent months, but it’s an issue that’s been on the department’s radar for years.
“We’ve been talking about this in the hallways for almost as long as I’ve been here,” said Anna Joy Springer, a creative-writing professor who’s been teaching at UCSD for six years.
Between 2000 and 2006, faculty and staff who work in the building reported at least eight individual cases of breast cancer. Of these people, two have died. Also reported were one case each of ovarian cancer, carcinoma of the adrenal cortex, adenoid cystic carcinoma of the salivary gland and metastatic cervical cancer. Three people have been diagnosed with benign tumors in the uterus and ovaries.
Employees first noticed the trend in 2002. Years later, in response to a request from the literature department to find out what was causing the unusually high occurrence of cancer, the Chancellor’s office commissioned Dr. Cedric Garland, an epidemiologist from the university’s Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, to conduct a study.
Garland completed his work last June, concluding that women who worked in the literature building had a roughly four- to five-times greater chance of developing breast cancer than if they didn’t work in the building. The report ruled out potential causes, such as the domestic water supply, radioactive chemicals, mold and exposure to carcinogens.
Garland did, however, suggest that there could be a link between the cancer cluster and the building’s electrical and elevator systems.
“Some epidemiological studies and laboratory studies have linked exposure to residential levels of electromagnetic fields from high electrical configurations, such as… step-down electric power transformers, to breast or other cancers,” Garland wrote.
The literature building’s elevator is powered by hydraulic motors that require a surge of energy in order to compress the hydraulic fluid, momentarily increasing the power drawn by the motor to an amount five times greater than normal. These quick surges occur each time the elevator buttons are pushed—every 15 to 60 seconds in the literature building—which, in turn, creates an
electromagnetic field significantly higher than the recommended exposure.
Usually, hydraulic elevator motors are located in the basements of tall office buildings, but because the literature building has no basement, the motors are housed in a small utility room on the first floor.
The geographical center of the cancer cluster happens to be within a few feet of that room. According to Garland’s report, the level of electrical current passing through the literature building’s mechanical and elevator equipment rooms “could be equivalent” to an amount typically used in roughly 123 to 134 houses combined. Previous epidemiological studies have suggested that high-current electrical configurations that serve as few as six to eight residences are associated with higher cancer rates, the report said.
Perhaps even more troubling was the report’s claim that
“moderate exposure to electromagnetic fields interferes with the action of the drug tamoxifen.”
Tamoxifen is commonly prescribed to prevent the recurrence of estrogen-positive breast cancer. So, even if a woman’s breast cancer isn’t related to EMF exposure, if she’s taking tamoxifen to keep the cancer at bay, EMFs could undermine the drug’s effect.
These risks, however, are limited mainly to those who work “in very close proximity to the electrical and elevator equipment rooms.”
The report recommended that university administrators inform anyone who might work in the building of the potential risks and to try to lower the electromagnetic-field levels, either by reconfiguring the elevators or replacing them entirely.
Since the report’s release, Chancellor Marye Ann Fox and Vice Chancellor Paul Drake have met twice with the literature department.
In both meetings, said literature professor Nina Zhiri, the administration’s response was the same: Garland’s report was “inconclusive,” and further studies were necessary before making any major changes to the building. This makes little sense to Zhiri, who noted that Garland had been called the “leading authority” in his field by UCSD’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety when the study was first commissioned. “Scientific certainty is not something that you arrive at quickly,” Zhiri said. “We don’t think that we should wait until there is some ‘conclusive’ report.”
The report did, in fact, address lingering questions about whether electromagnetic fields cause breast cancer, stating that “the role of EMF in breast cancer is still not resolved with final scientific certainty, despite decades of research.” However, Garland went on to say, “the lack of such certainty should not be a reason to avoid taking moderate measures to minimize needless exposure of workers to power frequency electromagnetic fields.”
This policy, known as “prudent avoidance,” was adopted by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment as a method for protecting workers while further research is being done on the link between cancer and electromagnetic fields. In the eyes of the people who work in the literature department, it’s a simple matter of better safe than sorry. They would prefer that some action be taken before further research is conducted, rather than after.
That further research will come in the form of a study by Dr. Leeka Kheifets, an expert for the World Health Organization on the health effects of EMFs, says Steve Benedict, director of UCSD’s Environment Health & Safety office. In a town-hall meeting last Thursday, Vice Chancellor Drake said that Kheifets’ study “should be done in about three or four weeks, and then we’ll decide what to do.” Benedict this week stretched the time frame to six to eight weeks.
To some in the literature department, the new study looks like little more than a stalling tactic. There are currently posters circulating around the building via e-mail that read, “8 cases of breast cancer and two deaths in the Lit building! UCSD response: stall, wait, deny.” Some have speculated that the Chancellor’s office is hoping the new study will contradict the old one, presumably undermining any lawsuits brought by the women who have been diagnosed with cancer.
Meanwhile, literature department staff want to know whether it’s safe to work in the building. “I think about it all the time,” said one staff member, who asked not to be identified by name, who works within meters of the elevators and can hear the motors turning on and off throughout the day.
However, on Monday night, just before CityBeat’s press deadline, Benedict provided answers to a series of written questions sent late last week to a university spokesperson. Benedict said that as interim measures, the university has shut down one of two elevators identified in Garland’s report (late on Tuesday, a spokesperson said both elevators had been shut down), older motor starting devices have been replaced by newer ones that produce fewer EMFs and the “areas identified by Dr. Garland as being potentially at risk of exposure to EMF were vacated.”
Benedict also noted that Garland’s report states that the highest level of EMFs found in the building “is not prohibited by any known U.S. national exposure standard” and that the “exposure is unlikely to be a principal cause of breast cancer that has been diagnosed in people who have worked in this small area.”
However, the U.S. doesn’t have an exposure standard; Garland based his conclusions on Sweden’s standard and the readings he took in the literature building at times exceeded that standard. Garland also added that “some possibility exists that it could have contributed modestly to risk” and then mentioned the issue of tamoxifen interference.
Many people, especially students, have not read Garland’s report and don’t know to what extent they should be worried about their health and safety. Some faculty members, like Springer, wonder if they should warn each person who enters the building of the potential risk. Others, like Zhiri, worry about what the department should tell new employees, or whether to tell them at all. The issue of tamoxifin interference is especially thorny—the last thing the department wants to be asking new hires about is their medical history.
“It would make sense to me if alternate space was found for us to hold all the business of the department until the issue was resolved,” Springer said. “I think that’s the only ethical thing to do at this point.”
The administration feels differently. During Thursday’s town-hall meeting, when asked about the building, Fox said, “Right now, we don’t have sufficient evidence to justify moving the faculty or the staff out of [the building].” Vice Chancellor Drake added that UCSD simply doesn’t have “a building sitting ready that could take not only the staff, but the faculty, graduate students, etcetera, which would be some 90 people. So there’s really no way we can do that.”
There is, in fact, at least one empty building on campus. In a campus-wide e-mail dated Feb. 12, UCSD’s music department announced the completion of the new Conrad Prebys Music Center. The department has not yet moved into the new building but plans to do so at the end of this week. And Springer suggested the possibility of finding temporary off-campus facilities for literature-department employees. “I see neuroscience and other departments renting offices across the street in that commercial area,” she said, “and that’s why it seems like it’s also about cost.”
Drake spoke about the issue of cost at the town-hall meeting. “If a conclusive study comes back that shows that building does cause cancer, we will get people out of there, I assure you. But we cannot do that on a fiscally responsible basis until we have that proof, and so far we don’t.”
The administration has offered to find new offices for a select few employees, who, in Drake’s words, “feel particularly threatened or distressed, or under pressure from this situation.” Given what the literature department sees as an unacceptable lack of action by the administration, many employees have begun to take matters into their own hands. For several weeks there have been signs on both elevators, asking students and teachers to take the stairs whenever possible. But the signs don’t give a reason for the request and are often ignored. Zhiri said a building committee that she chairs would like to make it so that the elevators require a key to operate, but that would be a “bureaucratic nightmare,” she said.
“And all of this costs money, of course,” Zhiri added—money that the department doesn’t have.
Employees have also been spending less time in their offices. Graduate student Sabrina Starnam holds office hours at a coffee shop on campus, with a sign on her table that reads “Cancer Free Office Hours.” There’s been talk of holding classes elsewhere, though at the moment, students continue to attend workshops and seminars in the building’s classrooms.
Meanwhile, an online petition has been circulating that reads, “WE, the undersigned, support the Faculty, Staff, Students and Workers in the Literature Building, and ask that the University provide them with a safe workplace.” So far, the petition has almost 1,000 signatures from concerned students, parents and friends. And on Tuesday, Feb. 17, the department held a teach-in on UCSD’s Library Walk. Zhiri said the plan was to inform the campus community about the situation and circulate the petition.
While faculty members and staff have been spending more and more of their time talking about the issue, drafting letters to the administration and planning protests, they have been spending less of their time teaching, researching and writing. “It would help us do our jobs,” Springer said, “if we believed deeply that we were supported and our health was valued.”
Though the literature department is generally unhappy with the administration’s actions, Zhiri says that in recent weeks, “there has been a marked effort toward transparency.” Members of the department now meet regularly with the Environmental Health and Safety office and are being updated on what’s being done to deal with the situation.
* Published: 02/17/2009 by Amanda Ripley