Kendall Moore, PhD
Professor, Journalism & Film/Media
University of Rhode Island
"Sick Building" is an hour-long documentary exposing the seemingly high rates of cancer in one University of Rhode Island building--the Chafee Social Science Center. The Chafee building, named after the late politician John Chafee, father of Lincoln Chafee (current Governor with a strong environmental agenda], has for some time been plagued by complaints which ranged from headaches and nausea, to dizziness.
These complaints eventually led to a full investigation which included a toxicological forensics study, a blood serum study, and three cancer matching reports. These complaints were driven by three women, Drs. Patricia Morokoff, Susan Brady, and Lisa Harlow who came forward to report that they all had breast cancer. Of greater concern was the fact that all three women worked on the same floor, and were diagnosed in their 40s.
Years later, in 2000, a toxics study identified PCBs in and around the building. More specifically, identified in the caulking glue used in the window frames; throughout the HVAC system, and along the perimeter of the building, including on the intake grades on the southwest side of the building.
In 2000-2001, the building would go through a 4 million dollar remediation for PCBs. And as part of the response, the university hired a team of renowned epidemiologists from Boston University's School of Public Health to conduct a cancer matching study. Their study would attempt to produce data on how many cancer cases were linked to the building. Their data would be derived from lists maintained by the Rhode Island Cancer Registry, and from other regional cancer registries in New England.
In the first data report, they found nearly 80 cases of various cancers. Although these numbers seemed high, compared to national and local data, most were considered quite average. However, for breast and prostate, data were above average, but not statistically significant.
In 2004 the building re-opened. It was re-dedicated and the chapter on Chafee and PCBs was closed. At this time, according to Environmental Health and Engineering, the company that led the research, report that: if chemicals still exist in the building, they do not exceed EPA limits. But despite this fact, returning residents still felt uneasy.
In 2008, as an assignment for my documentary film students, I asked them if they would like to document the Chafee story. They agreed. And for three months, 16 students began production. What they learned surprised all of us. We learned that there was a preponderance of cancer on one side of the building, facing the south side, where Drs. Morokoff, Brady, and Harlow had their offices. They also learned of three major theories that had been discussed prior to the findings of PCBs.
One of those theories involved the landfill, designated as a Superfund site, located less than a mile from Chafee. Some of the interviewees wanted to know if the chemicals wafting up hill from the Superfund site towards Chafee could have been a contributing factor.
Though this theory was considered unlikely, the students did learn that there were three families living across the street from the Superfund site who had been exposed to carcinogenic chemicals that had been leaching from the site. In a little known story, from the 90s, two families living across from the site had complained that when they took baths their skin would burn.
Soon after this complaint, the Health Dept. identified Trichloroethylene (TCE), and Perchloroethylene (PCE), in their well water. Both are known cancer-causing agents. Those families were promptly taken off of their well water and connected to the university’s water. To this day, PCE and TCE are traveling slowly in ground water towards 100 Acre Pond, a residential water source. This problem is closely monitored by the Dept. of Environmental Management. This film project, which I decided to continue, in 2009, caused the university to update the cancer matching study of 2004.
This way, there would be more data to see if there is, in fact, a cancer cluster. The film, "Sick Building," examines those updated findings. Today, we find that the Chafee case is representative of a growing problem. Hundreds of schools are discovering that they too have PCBs in their window caulk, which was used and later outlawed in the 70s, (see CNN on New Bedford; local news on Manhattan schools).
The EPA has addressed the issue but does not currently require schools to test for the chemicals. They do require, however, that if PCBs are found, they must be removed, which can be a very expensive burden to taxpayers. The EPA is also currently debating whether to move PCBs from “probable” to “known carcinogen” on the list of dangerous toxic agents. The building's residents were disappointed that a linkage could not be made. The Chafee building story will go down in environmental science history as the building with caulk containing PCBs and as the EPA’s first case of its kind for caulk remediation.