Worker deaths raise concerns

Two employees in Butte Hall die of rare lung disease

Chico State’s Butte Hall

Chico State’s Butte Hall

Photo By ken smith

The recent lung-cancer deaths of two Chico State University employees who worked in the same building have raised faculty concerns over air quality and possible asbestos contamination.

Tami Harder Kilpatric, an administrative support coordinator in the college’s Political Science Department, died Sept. 16, at the age of 51, due to complications from lung cancer. On May 16, sociology professor Andrew Dick, 49, died a year after being diagnosed with atypical lung cancer. Dick and Kilpatric both worked in offices in the northwest corner of Butte Hall, on the sixth and seventh floors, respectively.

A Sept. 21 email from Dean Fairbanks, the Geography and Planning Department chairman, to Gayle Hutchinson, dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, and forwarded to several other faculty members, expressed these concerns: “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 replied less than two hours later, saying she had immediately set up a meeting with the campus Departments of Environmental Health and Safety, Facilities Management and Services, and Academic Affairs to address faculty concern.

On Tuesday (Sept. 25), Hutchinson’s office deferred questions about the air quality in Butte Hall to EHS Director Marvin Pratt, and said a forum for employees to express their concerns has tentatively been scheduled for Oct. 9. Pratt was unavailable for an interview as of press time, but Joe Wills, director of Public Affairs, did respond Wednesday morning.

“The health and safety of our students and staff is always of primary concern,” Wills said, adding that campus officials were preparing a statement to “address concerns and reassure safety” of Butte Hall employees to be released that afternoon.

“Hundreds of thousands of buildings constructed during a certain era contain asbestos, and they’re perfectly safe unless certain areas are disturbed.” He said no construction, on the HVAC system or otherwise, has occurred at Butte Hall recently. He also said there are currently no plans to test for asbestos or threats at Butte Hall.

“If the experts we consult with lead us in that direction, then that’s an option we’ll pursue, but there doesn’t seem to be a reason at this time,” he said.

Several faculty members acknowledged they were concerned about the recent deaths and their possible connection to air quality, but declined to comment until more information is known.

Butte Hall is a seven-story building constructed in 1972 and designed to hold 3,000 students and 110 faculty offices. Classes are held on the lower floors, and the entire building is home to more than a dozen departments, programs and administrative services. The floors in question house offices for the College of Behavioral Science, Departments of Political Science, Economy, Sociology, Health and Community Services, and the Center for Multicultural and Gender Studies.

In accordance with the California Health and Safety Code, EHS releases an annual notification of the location of asbestos-containing materials on campus. This year’s memo, dated March 1, states, “Asbestos-containing building materials do not pose a threat to your health unless the building materials containing asbestos become damaged or disturbed.” An attached list, also available online, lists 45 campus buildings that contain asbestos.

Of particular concern are the age and relative health of the two recent cancer victims. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average age for lung-cancer diagnosis is 71, with less than 3 percent of cases appearing before the age of 45. By all reports, Dick and Kilpatric were in exceptional physical health before their diagnosis.