Greenville, North Carolina — As the fall semester is about to begin, faculty health concerns related to an East Carolina University building continue to mount as reported cases of a rare cancer continue to rise.
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A week later a WRAL explore story, relatives of another former faculty informed the university that their loved ones had also contracted pancreatic cancer, bringing the number of reported cases to at least eight.
All eight worked for years in the A Wing of ECU’s Brewster Building.
“The faculties in this building are very concerned about the serious diseases that have occurred here,” history professor Karin Zipf previously told WRAL Investigates.
Zipf is president of the ECU division of the American Association of University Professors and has worked in the Brewster building for 20 years.
Since 2011, WRAL initially reported that Zipf lost five fellow educators, including four just since 2018, all of whom had offices in the building’s A wing. They all died of pancreatic cancer, a rare and aggressive disease.
- Frank Murphy, associate professor of philosophy passed away in 2011
- Wen Wang, assistant professor of political science passed away in 2018
- Randall Parker, economics professor, died in 2018
- Kenneth Wilson, professor of sociology, died in 2019
- Kathy Jones, sociology teacher, died in July
“These were all individually some of the most compassionate people,” Zipf said. “These were dedicated teachers. And we still mourn those losses because we were close to those faculty members. It’s really heartbreaking.”
Faculty members tell us after our story aired, they heard from families of at least three other former faculty members who also worked at Brewster’s A-Wing. All three also developed pancreatic cancer and two died from it. Their names and the dates they worked at Brewster were not released.
While it’s difficult to prove cancer clusters, Zipf believes the deaths are not accidental.
“The reality for Brewster faculty is that there seems to be a link between pancreatic cancer,” Zipf said, “and working in Brewster’s A-Wing, whether the building is the cause or not.”
“Looks like something’s up,” campus curator Ralph Scott agrees.
Scott serves on the executive committee of the American Association of University Professors. “I’m not a cancer specialist, but to a layperson it seems unusual,” he said.
Other faculty disorders in the same wing include brain cancer, kidney failure, and a pancreatic cyst.
WRAL Investigates received a letter from a faculty group to the ECU administration, sounding the alarm and calling for further investigation of possible toxins, including asbestos in the air, water and building materials. They want a case study of the diseases, and they want the Brewster building to be torn down.
Although asbestos has been linked to cancer, there is no conclusive scientific evidence linking it to pancreatic cancer.
“The university takes the concerns of faculty, staff and students with the utmost care,” an ECU spokesperson told WRAL Investigates.
Prior to the start of classes, university leaders issued a letter to parents and the campus community on Thursday in response to rising health concerns, saying in part, “Based on available information, we have found no evidence that the reported health problems are building-related.”
The university conducted an environmental study of the Brewster Building in 2019, which revealed no hazards. WRAL News combed through that report and found that the air and water sampling tests didn’t look for signs of asbestos.
The ECU administration said a local team of scientists will conduct further investigations. According to the letter, asbestos is now being investigated.
Zipf feels the school is listening to the faculty’s concerns. “I think the university is working very hard to prioritize this.”
The wing where all the professors work houses only faculty offices, no classrooms. Still, Zipf said, “My own intuition would advise parents to tell their children not to drink the water in Brewster.”
The ECU letter disputed that suggestion. “All campus water is provided by the Greenville Utilities Commission and is tested regularly to ensure high-quality drinking water is supplied to campus. In the 2019 assessment, EH&S tested water in Brewster and all samples met EPA requirements administrators wrote.
COVID-19 precautions, such as mask-wearing and flexibility at work, are helping to reduce cancer fears at some Brewster faculties.
“I hope with reports like yours and questions we’ll get the team together,” Zipf said. to solve the problem.”
University leaders told WRAL Investigates that ECU not only uses local scientific experts, but also hires an outside consultant to conduct a risk assessment and address faculty concerns.
Zipf confirmed that the CDC’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health also plans to conduct a workplace assessment.