The lung cancer deaths of two employees at California’s Chico State University have others at the college wondering whether they’re headed for the same fate, and concerns over poor air quality and exposure to asbestos are among the topics being discussed by the co-workers of the deceased, both of whom worked in the same building.
According to an article in the Chico News and Review, administrative support coordinator Tami Harder Kilpatric died on September 16 at the age of 51 from complications due to lung cancer. She worked in the Political Science Department located on the sixth floor of the northwest corner of Butte Hall. Four months earlier, sociology professor Andrew Dick died of atypical lung cancer, just a year after he was diagnosed with the disease. Dick also worked in the northwest corner of Butte Hall, but on the seventh floor.
Co-workers of the deceased have begun to believe that the death of their two colleagues from lung cancer, especially at such a young age, is more than just a sad coincidence. Last week, Dean Fairbanks, the Geography and Planning Department chairman, expressed his concerns in an email sent to a number of his fellow faculty members at Chico State, including Gayle Hutchinson, dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. The email said: “As we all know this building was built in the era when the iron beams were spray coated with asbestos that is held in a fiberglass matrix. It is fine if left alone, it will be stable. However, with all the work on the HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] system could there have been a disturbance with any of the asbestos coatings?”
Hutchinson responded by scheduling a meeting with the Departments of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS), Facilities Management and Services, and Academic Affairs. The EHS director, Marvin Platt, has announced that a forum for employees to express their concerns has been tentatively scheduled to October 9. He plans to answer all questions at that time and wasn’t available for an interview with the News and Review.
However, Director of Public Affairs, Joe Wills, did release a statement to the media in an attempt to quell the fears of faculty and others who work in Butte Hall, a 7-story building constructed in 1972 when asbestos was still used in a variety of building materials such as insulation, cement, floor tiles, acoustic ceilings, and more.
“Hundreds of thousands of buildings constructed during a certain era contain asbestos, and they’re perfectly safe unless certain areas are disturbed,” Wills said. He added that no construction, on the HVAC system or otherwise, has occurred at Butte Hall in recent times and, hence, no asbestos was disturbed.
When asbestos is disturbed, damaged or becomes old and crumbly, it can release fibers that circulate through the air, prompting inhalation by those working in the area. Individuals who inhale fibers can develop lung cancer, mesothelioma, or other severe respiratory problems.
But the age of the victims sent up the proverbial red flag. say faculty members. Both Dick and Kilpatric were said to be in excellent health before their diagnosis and they fall into an age category far below that of the average lung cancer patient, according to statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control.