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A photograph of Poe Hall.

Poe Hall, which housed N.C. State’s College of Education and psychology department, has been closed since November, when administrators notified occupants of the presence of worrying chemicals.

North Carolina State University

On Nov. 16, two North Carolina State University executive vice chancellors sent employees and students a worrisome message: test results from Poe Hall, home of the College of Education and psychology department, “indicate” the presence of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. The Environmental Protection Agency dubs these toxic pollutants, which were banned from production in 1979, as “probable human carcinogens.”

The two officials wrote, “Out of an abundance of caution, the university will move forward with more comprehensive testing of the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system.” They also announced that the university would start limiting access to the building and “all operations will move to alternative locations in the days ahead.”

The university said it relocated more than 230 classes for over 4,000 students and provided new workspaces for more than 400 faculty members, graduate students and staff members. This week, Randy Woodson, N.C. State’s chancellor, announced he anticipates the building will be closed at least through the end of this year.

Since the PCBs discovery, successive reports by Raleigh news station WRAL have painted a bleaker and bleaker picture of the possible harm to those who worked in Poe Hall, which finished construction in 1971. Roughly two weeks ago, it posted an article saying it had “independently confirmed 40 cases of cancer in people who spent time at Poe Hall, including several deaths.” Not long after, it reported it had “independently received 101 reports of cancer and more than a dozen other reports of serious illness in people who spent time in Poe Hall.” 

Added to this have been reports that the university first requested a federal Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE), which it said opened in October, and then, in January, allegedly called off. Mary Cole Pike, a university spokeswoman, said Thursday she couldn’t say what N.C. State told the federal government regarding that evaluation because she wasn’t part of those calls.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—which includes the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the agency that would conduct that evaluation—said in an email to Inside Higher Ed that the university requested pausing the HHE “because of NCSU’s own ongoing internal investigation,” so the agency “made the decision to close the inactive HHE, noting that NCSU is welcome to resubmit a request at any time.” The university has hired its own evaluators. 

Pike said the university requested a new HHE Feb. 12. That came in response to the university receiving more data from its building testing, she said—not because of public and media pressure. “We’ve been communicating with NIOSH all along, it’s just now we have some actual data about the building, so it was the right time to reach back out,” she said.

A North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson told Inside Higher Ed via email that N.C. State contacted it about Poe Hall on Oct. 5. The department spokesperson said the university “followed the right steps in contacting the department when they first identified concerns,” and the department recommended the university work with NIOSH, “since they have specialized expertise in cancer concerns in occupational settings.”

That spokesperson also said the North Carolina department “offered to conduct a walk-through environmental assessment of Poe Hall; however, N.C. State contracted with an independent consultant to perform this assessment.” Asked about this, Pike said N.C. State has remained in close contact with the department and that a “walk-through is not the same as a comprehensive environmental assessment, which [the North Carolina department] does not have the expertise to provide. This is why we are working with Geosyntec [Consultants, the university’s contracted firm], which, again, is best practice in these types of building evaluations.”

The university’s past apparent declinations of outside evaluations have led to criticism on and off campus—as has its communications, or lack thereof, about the situation. Some faculty members have alleged a conflict of interest in its handling of the testing through its contractors. The university says it hasn’t formally reached out to former building occupants, and some former employees said they haven’t heard anything. College of Education faculty members have voted no confidence in university leaders.

Some current and former faculty members have criticized the university’s communications, or lack thereof, regarding the health hazards. LoriAnn Stretch—a University of the Cumberlands counseling professor who said she was a doctoral student and adjunct professor in Poe Hall and has been in and out of the building since then teaching and consulting—told Inside Higher Ed the university hasn’t contacted her about the PCBs.

Stretch said she had both breasts removed to combat breast cancer, which is now in remission, and she’s currently dealing with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), a serious liver disease not caused by alcohol abuse. But she said her biggest concern is that she was pregnant and breastfeeding while a doctoral student, that she had complications with her births and that her two children, now 16 and 21, have had lifelong chronic immune issues.

“If this is the cause of what my family is struggling with, then it’s very frustrating,” she said. She said that if you go to a state-affiliated school, “you feel like you should be safe in that space.”

At least two law firms have created webpages about the controversy, seemingly trying to attract clients. One says its attorneys “are actively investigating cases on behalf of students, faculty, and staff who were exposed to the contaminants in the building in the last decade or longer. If you have questions about your legal options, contact our law firm.” Another asks for calls “if you or someone you know spent time in Poe Hall and later developed any of these health conditions.”

Some have alleged the university has a conflict of interest in investigating, considering it’s facing possible lawsuits and possibly large payouts. Stephen Porter, a College of Education professor, said it would be as if he were accused of plagiarism, then read through his own work and issued his own report.

“The administration doesn’t seem to understand they need to restore trust at this point,” Porter said. He pushed for the successful no-confidence vote by College of Education faculty members.

“If there is any kind of screening available out there, why isn’t the university offering to pay for health screenings?” he said.

Pike said Thursday, “We don’t believe the building is dangerous.” She said N.C. State closed the building out of an abundance of caution but noted that people are currently working in the basement on a server that supports wireless connectivity to all of the university’s North Campus.

“We don’t know what we don’t know yet … we can’t jump to conclusions about exposure until we complete this broader testing,” Pike said.

“It’s devastating, the illnesses that we keep hearing about,” she said, “but that’s what’s motivating us to continue doing this work.”

Something in the Air?

A current faculty member who requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation and to discuss private medical information said she’s worked for over 20 years in Poe Hall and has had breast cancer, along with other serious health issues.

“There have been complaints about air quality ever since I’ve been in that building. I know of people who complained in the 1980s,” she said.

Pike said an employee confidentially expressed concerns last August, and that “kicked off our internal testing of the building” for asbestos, lead, heavy metals and PCBs. She said the employee had “reached out to leadership in the College of Education requesting more information on previous environmental studies of Poe Hall.”

She said N.C. State Environmental Health and Safety employees did an initial sampling in the fall semester, which was sent to outside labs. But N.C. State’s staff didn’t take air samples. Pike called the fall testing “extremely preliminary, extremely limited,” and said that, since January, Geosyntec Consultants, not university staff, has been doing the sampling, and an outside lab has again done testing.

On Feb. 8, university leaders released an overview of Geosyntec’s first test report. This time, air was tested, but with the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system off, they said, “in order to get a baseline to measure against for the full building.”

The university leaders announced that for all “14 indoor air samples collected, all results for PCBs, specifically for Aroclor-1262, were below the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) established exposure levels for evaluating PCBs in school indoor air environments.” They said about two-thirds of the surface samples had “undetectable concentrations” and of the one-third that did, “all but one of those were well below the EPA threshold.”

Geosyntec didn’t provide Inside Higher Ed an interview, but the university provided its report, which suggests PCB levels may change when the building is tested with the HVAC on. Geosyntec said its “preliminary conceptual site model (CSM) is built on the assumption that the primary mechanism by which building occupants potentially could be exposed to PCBs would be through contacting or respiring PCBs adsorbed to dust” that’s distributed by air-handling units.

“Sources of PCBs in this preliminary CSM would be located inside the HVAC system components, in contact with flowing air, where the bulk materials that make up potential sources might break down and later be distributed to indoor spaces,” Geosyntec wrote.

Alongside testing with the HVAC on, Geosyntec wrote that it recommends reviewing scientific studies on PCBs “to support a current understanding of the potential human health effects associated with exposure, including an evaluation of the strength and consistency of such associations with the relative magnitude of exposures.”

David Carpenter—a professor at the University at Albany, part of the State University of New York, who studies PCBs and frequently testifies in lawsuits alleging harms from them—told Inside Higher Ed that, for any given case of cancer, “it’s impossible to prove that it was caused by PCBs.”

“You can certainly say that more increases risk,” Carpenter said. He said Geosyntec’s report “implies strongly that there is a continuing source of PCBs in the air and that it is being deposited around the room.”

Herle McGowan, chair of the N.C. State faculty, said she thinks the university’s communication has improved since the beginning of the controversy. She’s less critical of the administration than some other faculty members, saying administrators “don’t want to sacrifice quality just to get answers faster.”

But McGowan noted she’s not directly affected. “I did not work in a building for 15 years and then have to face questions” about whether it sickened her, she said.

Stretch, when asked by Inside Higher Ed whether a medical professional had linked her and her family’s ailments to PCBs, said a lawyer had advised her not to comment on that. When asked why she had been speaking with an attorney, she said it was “because if somebody knowingly put dangerous materials in a building that has caused myself and my family harm, they should be held accountable.”

Pike, the university spokeswoman, said, “We have not yet conducted any formal outreach to previous building occupants. We created a public website that we’re updating regularly and posting any updates that we share with the community on the university’s social media channels for expanded awareness.”

Stretch said the university “did call me two days ago, to ask me for a donation.” She said she declined.

“I think I’ve already paid enough for being at Poe,” she said.

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