Does Starbuck Cause Cancer?
In the past 17 years, there have been approximately 11 people that have worked in the Starbuck Center and have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Could the building be causing this cancer?
Starbuck Center is named after Kathryn H. Starbuck, a former professor and college leader at Skidmore. It currently hosts many offices that directly work with students including Student Academic Services (SAS) and the Career Development Center (CDC). Previously, professors including Psychology professor Sheldon Solomon, had offices in Starbuck.
In 2012, concerns were raised that something in Starbuck was causing breast cancer. To delve into this problem, an investigation was led by Mike West, Vice President for Finance & Administration and Treasurer, and his office. One current Starbuck employee, who preferred to remain anonymous, is questioning whether the investigation should have been handled by health officials on campus, and thinks that having West’s office conduct the investigation was in an effort to save money.
The investigation of the building occurred in two parts. First, a comprehensive environmental study of the building was conducted. Secondly, an outside oncology expert conducted a medical review, but ultimately no connection between health issues and the workplace was found at the time.
In an effort of caution, employees were removed from the building for several months so that the building could undergo remodeling that included new flooring, ceilings and an entirely new HVAC system being installed. This was not the first time a renovation has been done to the building. The building was originally constructed in 1966. A complete renovation and addition was finalized in 1998.
From 1970 to 1989, the building hosted a lab space. Within these labs, Gus Lumia, a retired Skidmore professor, conducted rodent research related to psychology experiments. Lumia was in charge of the labs during the duration of these experiments, between approximately 1970 and 1989. The 2012 investigation report titled, Breast Cancer Review Starbuck Center, Skidmore College was created by Peter G. Shields, explores whether any of the chemicals used in this lab could have caused for breast cancer.
Shields’ investigation of the papers produced from this lab suggests that no unusual chemicals were used in the experiments. He also shared that a former employee claimed formaldehyde was used in the lab without hoods. Hoods were installed in 1983 and Shields reports that formaldehyde used after this time was likely vented outside. “Formaldehyde is highly volatile and has a strong odor, and so it would not be expected that formaldehyde would persist after the 1998 renovation,” reads the Shields’ report. The report also mentions that any other chemicals used would not have been present after the renovations.
Though the Shields’ report states no connection between working in Starbuck and breast cancer, the issue has been raised again this year. As winter break came to a close, Gail Cummings-Danson, Interim Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students, sent an email to students alerting them of the current situation in the Starbuck Center. Skidmore employees received the same email as students but, instead, President Phillip Glotzbach signed their email.
The email read, “We have been working closely with employees in Starbuck Center who recently expressed concerns that environmental factors in the building could be related to three current cases of breast cancer.”
A Starbuck Steering Committee (SSC) being chaired by Crystal Dea Moore, Associate Dean of the Faculty has been formed to help lead and oversee the investigation of the health and safety of the building. They have “been charged with engaging in the process to locate and hire a firm or firms to conduct a new round of environmental testing and an epidemiological study, and to consult with the New York State Department of Health and other relevant parties,” read the email from Cummings-Danson. In order to achieve this plan, the committee plans to meet twice a week through February and will than re-evaluate their meeting schedule come March.
The current investigation is being run differently than the 2012 investigation. Instead of West’s office conducting the investigation this time the SSC is. Also, the current thinking is that this time, unlike in 2012, all people working in Starbuck will stay in place and not relocate. “Because of the absence of health risks found in previous comprehensive studies and the fact that the building was nevertheless completely refurbished, we don’t plan to relocate offices from Starbuck at this time,” wrote Cummings-Danson in her email to students.
The SSC has created a blog that they will be providing frequent updates on in order to keep the community informed in their work.