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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

Medical tests show occupants of URI’s Chafee building do not have elevated PCB concentrations

Media Contact: Dave Lavallee, 401-874-5862

Occupants have lower overall PCB levels than subjects from other studies
Time spent in building not associated with higher PCB concentrations

KINGSTON, R.I. -- December 14, 2004 -- Blood serum tests done on 79 current and former University of Rhode Island employees who are based in the Chafee Social Science Center or who once were show that levels of PCBs in their blood are not elevated.

In addition, individual PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) concentrations in general were low compared to those in two other studies, including the Housatonic River Area Exposure Assessment Study, completed in Massachusetts in 1997, and a national study involving 5,000 participants by the federal Centers of Disease Control. The CDC study reflected the general population of the U.S. Two children of occupants of Chafee were also tested, but their results were not included in the overall analysis.

The University offered medical testing to 300 current and former employees dating back to 1972, the year the building opened. For the medical tests, blood was drawn at URI Health Services and South County Hospital and sent to the Harvard School of Public Health PCB laboratory. The lab analyzed the blood samples for 57 PCB congeners (or types) that were consistent with those found in Chafee and with those congeners included in test standards recognized by the World Health Organization and the CDC.

The test results of the Chafee populations show a mean level of PCBs of 2.04 parts per billion (ppb), a median level of 1.79 ppb and a range of 0.029 to 5.32 ppb. These levels are very similar to or slightly less than comparable measures in the comparison populations.

Those faculty and staff from Chafee participating in the blood serum testing were mailed their individual results in the late summer and early fall of 2002, and had the opportunity to discuss them with doctors with expertise in the fields of workplace and environmental health. The overall analysis, comparisons to other studies and the remaining health study were more complex and required more time. In fact, final data from the studies became available only last week. The studies were commissioned and paid for by the University as part of the $3.8 million effort to test the building, remove materials containing PCBs, clean and renovate the entire structure and conduct continuing building tests to ensure a safe environment.

Marie Stoeckel, chief of the Rhode Island Department of Health’s Office Occupational and Radiological Health, has been part of the process from the beginning. As a public health expert, she said the University’s efforts to address the issues involving Chafee have been impressive.

“The project combined environmental assessments, medical evaluation and epidemiological studies to try to understand what was happening at the Chafee building in relation to the concerns about breast cancer,” Stoeckel said. “As a health department, we try to encourage our partners to utilize the most appropriate resources while recognizing there may be limits to what an institution can do. But in this case, the University has gone beyond the borders of Rhode Island to assist occupants of the building. URI was willing to invest time and money to get the best expertise it could, regardless of the cost to ensure that Chafee is as safe as it can be.”

The University closed the building in December 2000 after concentrations of PCBs, which are no longer manufactured in the United States, were detected through a comprehensive environmental analysis of Chafee.

While the initial dust and air samples showed higher levels of PCBs on certain floors, the medical testing showed that there is no significant difference in the blood serum levels of PCBs for occupants on different floors.

The analysis was one of many steps the University took to address the concerns of women in the building who were concerned about 11 known cases of breast cancer.

The health study, which compared cancer cases in Chafee to national data and the Rhode Island Cancer Registry, confirmed the perceptions of the women occupants of Chafee that the rate of breast cancer was slightly higher there, particularly in the 45 to 64 age grouping. “In fact, I would be surprised if we did not find a higher rate of breast cancer, given that is what the occupants reported, “ noted Richard Clapp, the Boston University epidemiologist, one of the team of experts hired by the University to oversee the various studies.

The study counted a total of 14 cases of breast cancer in Chafee over the past 32 years, compared to 13.35 cases expected for all ages. This represents a 5 percent increase risk for the Chafee population, although this risk is not statistically significant, Clapp said. The breast cancer risk for the Chafee 45 to 64 age group is somewhat higher, but the risk still does not achieve statistical significance. The causes of these breast cancers cannot be determined by these studies, but neither PCBs nor the building are the likely causes. Other factors, such as community-based environmental exposures, local demographics, and population effects are some other possible explanations for the observations in the health study.

“PCBs are not the right explanation because the females’ blood serum levels were even lower than the males, and in-line with the levels seen in females in the CDC study,” Clapp said. And statistically, there was no difference in the amount of time spent in Chafee between those who had breast cancer and those who had other types of cancer.

In addition, the comprehensive testing of Chafee in the fall of 2002, which had flagged PCBs, ruled out as factors air quality, airborne chemicals, non-ionizing and ionizing radiation, water, soil and the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

“The review of the Chafee building environment was not a hunt and peck, but a broad spectrum analysis that detected an unanticipated presence of PCBs and then brought the ultimate focus on their examination, eradication and reflection upon the implications,” said J. Vernon Wyman, assistant vice president for business services, who headed the Chafee project.

As soon as the University learned of the results relating to PCBs four years ago, Wyman, called renowned workplace and environmental health experts in Boston.

Within a matter of days, Wyman had hired Environmental Health and Engineering of Newton, Mass. to oversee the continual testing of the building, the remediation project, and to bring on board medical experts all affiliated with the Boston University School of Public Health to design and analyze the medical testing and health study. Wyman also convened an array of URI scientists and Chafee occupants to guide the process, including URI Psychology Professor Robert Laforge, an epidemiologist, and Chad Henderson, director of Health Services. James Quinn and Candace Oviatt, professors of oceanography, were key members of the Chafee science advisory group. The University at no cost provided all individual medical tests and follow-up consultations to employees.

The team’s analysis of the medical testing results showed that age and gender were the strongest predictor of a person’s blood serum concentration level of PCBs. When adjusted for age, the Chafee population has levels of PCBs that mirror PCB levels seen in the subjects in the much broader health status study done by the Centers for Disease Control.

On the remediation side of the project, clearance tests completed before the building was fully re-occupied showed that air, wipe and building material samples for the presence of PCBs, were either well below federal standards, or were not detectable. Recent tests show that PCB levels remain at extremely low or at levels below detection.

The medical testing and the epidemiological study were all approved by the state Department of Health and the University’s Institutional Review Board, which examines research projects for compliance with University standards.

During the fall of 2000, Chafee was tested at the request of building occupants for the presence of a broad array of possible contaminants, including pesticides. The results, delivered to the University on Dec. 18, 2000, did not reveal a problem with pesticides, but they did reveal the presence of PCBs. URI President Robert L. Carothers, after consulting with numerous campus officials, closed the building on Dec. 23 as a precaution.

Just eight months after the closing, URI began moving faculty and staff back into the low-rise section of the Chafee Social Science Center. The move followed removal of materials containing PCBs, the replacement of windows, gaskets and caulking. The large lecture halls were reopened in September 2001, while work continued at the eight-story high-rise. All moves followed clearance testing for the presence of PCBs in air, dust and building materials.

Work on the remainder of the building was completed in the spring of 2002, and all faculty, staff and students were back in the building at the start of fall 2002.