After faculty point to 3 cancer deaths, FSU closes building with reported black mold, radon

·9 min read
The Florida State University Sandels Building is indefinitely closed for air testing after a 129-page faculty report listed out potentially harmful air quality, possible chemical exposure and high radon levels Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.
The Florida State University Sandels Building is indefinitely closed for air testing after a 129-page faculty report listed out potentially harmful air quality, possible chemical exposure and high radon levels Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.

Florida State University has closed its Sandels building for air testing after a report written by faculty members listed "serious health concerns," including harmful air quality, possible chemical exposure and "extremely high and unsafe" levels of radon and black mold.

It also called attention to five faculty members and three former graduate students who have worked extensively in the building and were diagnosed with cancer in the last decade. Three of them have died.

The building's closure was announced in a Jan. 19 email from Dr. Michael Delp, dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences, as first reported by the Florida Politics news site. It was addressed to all staff, faculty and students who work in the building, which houses the college.

"I am asking that all faculty, staff and students with offices and classes in Sandels building to work and hold classes remotely until February 1st," the email read. "I am very sorry for this short notice and inconvenience, but we want to make sure that the work environment is safe for everyone."

A "thorough environmental review of the building" began Wednesday, FSU spokeswoman Amy Farnum-Patronis said. It will include comprehensive radon level measurements, one of the main concerns laid out in the report.

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The Provost's Office is searching for classroom space to be used for the remainder of the semester, according to Farnum-Patronis. In addition, the Office of the Vice President for Research is seeking space to relocate 11 laboratories for researchers and graduate students.

When asked by the Tallahassee Democrat what FSU administrators wanted the campus community to know about this ongoing situation, Farnum-Patronis responded, "The health and safety of the campus community is the university’s top priority, and we are in the process of gathering information and conducting a thorough environmental review of the building to inform and determine our next course of action. The building will remain closed until further notice."

The Florida State University Sandels Building is indefinitely closed for air testing after a 129-page faculty report listed out potentially harmful air quality, possible chemical exposure and high radon levels Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.
The Florida State University Sandels Building is indefinitely closed for air testing after a 129-page faculty report listed out potentially harmful air quality, possible chemical exposure and high radon levels Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.

Most complaints report black mold

The 129-page report, which is supported by staff from the Dean's Office and faculty from two colleges, was created by four professors who compiled emails, maps, photos, public records and testimonies from faculty and families.

It also included a myriad of complaints, warnings and efforts from faculty and staff to notify the university of the building's problems dating back to the early 2000s — none of which led to the building being completely closed until last week.

The most common complaint in written documents since 2001 concern black particles coming out of the ventilation system and building up on office desks, lab benches and classroom furnishings.

In 2009, after a surge of black particle reports, an air quality evaluation and air filtration cleaning was conducted by Rejuvinair. The report yielded findings of high levels of black mold as well as "high levels of non-viable material in the HVAC coils."

After the inspection was completed, Marian Sumner, the current administrative assistant to Dr. Dean Delp, was asked to keep a log of all air quality complaints in the building.

One former associate professor said the air filter in his office was covered in "black gunk," and his air machine had to be thrown out because of the same substance. He said he constantly coughs in his office and must drink water while lecturing.

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In 2020, a research coordinator emailed Sumner and two other administrators saying she noticed black particles blowing out of the vents in the basement of the building.

"I understand this is sort of a whole building issue and the (vents) down here are covered with cheesecloth, but it is still concerning seeing the amount (of black particles) resting on the cloth and knowing that we and participants are breathing this stuff in," she wrote.

"I can turn in a work order for the dust particles ... but I’m not sure what they can do if there is already cheesecloth over the vents," one administrator replied. "That has been the 'go to' solution for all areas that have requested it."

Dangerous chemicals and high radon levels

Inside two fourth-floor labs are a pair of chemical fume hoods that "have unknown substances/debris coming down from the ceiling," the report said.

Another room, where chemicals are stored, was cleaned in December 2020 and the following January. Some substances, including cyanide, were found and apparently discarded by FSU's Environmental Health and Safety workers, the report said.

But the university has not provided faculty, who inquired through a public records request over a year ago, with more information about the discovered substances.

In January, two professors measured the levels of radon — a byproduct of the radioactive decay of uranium in the soil — in some of the labs and offices on the ground floor of the building.

Through the dean's office, basement and other rooms they measured levels between 6.67 and 13.05 pCi/L, or PicoCuries per liter of air. The EPA recommends taking mitigation actions for radon levels between 2 and 4 pCi/L.

“Lung cancer risk rises 16% per 2.7 pCi/L increase in radon exposure," according to the radon information center. “Even with an action level of 2.0 pCi/L, the cancer risk presented by radon gas is still hundreds of times greater than the risks allowed for carcinogens in our food and water."

The Florida State University Sandels Building is indefinitely closed for air testing after a 129-page faculty report listed out potentially harmful air quality, possible chemical exposure and high radon levels Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.
The Florida State University Sandels Building is indefinitely closed for air testing after a 129-page faculty report listed out potentially harmful air quality, possible chemical exposure and high radon levels Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.

Miscarriage in an 'otherwise healthy pregnancy'

Beginning in 2019 and running through March 2020, a woman who asked to remain anonymous worked in a research room on third floor of the Sandels building for 15 hours a week.

She told the Democrat Thursday that she "experienced a miscarriage in the first trimester of an otherwise healthy pregnancy."

"In the months after that experience, I began having debilitating migraines on a weekly basis," she said.

She later added that she endured respiratory issues and congestion while working — a frequent complaint along with autoimmune flareups, breathing trouble and headaches that are exacerbated when people are in the building.

The "most alarming" finding in the report are the five faculty and three graduate students who have been diagnosed with cancer, most of whom worked "in the East wing of the 4th floor of the Sandels Building," which houses most of the research labs.

A research coordinator who worked in the fourth-floor lab and basement was diagnosed with thyroid disease in 2013. In 2019, at the age of 38, she was diagnosed with a very rare type of skin cancer of which there are about 1,000 cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year.

In 2021, a former Ph.D. student who worked on the fourth floor also was diagnosed with the same cancer. She was 33.

"It is alarming that two young women working in the same area were diagnosed with this very rare condition," faculty wrote in the report.

In 2016, a professor and program director who worked on the fourth floor, in the basement and in classrooms throughout the building was diagnosed with a rare cancer in his gastrointestinal tract. He was 36.

A professor of food science whose lab was on the fourth floor and who has twice reported "black particles falling on the countertop in her laboratory between 2005 and 2010" was diagnosed with bronchiectasis and cancer.

A former assistant professor of food science was diagnosed with several malignancies over the course of eight years, beginning in 2012, including cancer on his cheek and bile duct cancer, which later killed him.

Another assistant professor was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2020. According to the report, he led an "extremely healthy lifestyle doing aerobic exercise and/or resistance training at least 5 days a week."

He never smoked and had no pre-existing conditions or family history of lung cancer, his colleagues wrote. His lab also had one of the highest levels of black particles in the ventilation system, on top of bench surfaces and on the floor.

A program director was diagnosed with pre-skin cancer in the summer 2021. She was 54. She was also diagnosed with asthma, allergies and chronic migraine headaches beginning in 2014.

Her colleagues, who penned the report, said she mentioned that “while teaching remotely, I did not have to use any asthma/allergy medication or migraine medication."

Professor to university on Jan. 19: 'Sick to my stomach'

In May 2021, after a string of more complaints of black mold, the university agreed to push for funding to have the building's air handlers and ductwork cleaned by an outside vendor.

However, the university refused to pay for the black particles to be tested, so the college funded an independent evaluation of the air quality, which was performed by AIRMD, according to the report.

In August, AIRMD's report substantiated earlier claims that there were elevated fungal quantities in many rooms around the building that likely stemmed from "50 years of dust accumulation in the airducts," the report said.

One of the highest amounts of black mold was in the laboratory of a food science professor who passed away from cancer in 2019, the report said. The professor's former graduate student also passed away with "a similar cancer in 2018."

Last September, Service-Tech Corporation began cleaning air ducts overnight between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m. — a project that staff was told would take less than six weeks, according to the report.

"As of January 2022, the cleaning of the ventilation system has not been completed," faculty wrote. "However, after 4 months of cleaning, black particles are still falling on desks, benches and floors in classrooms, labs and offices in Sandels."

Dennis Schnittker, a university spokesperson, said the cleaning "is expected to be completed this semester," in an email to the Democrat.

Out of concern, facilities workers removed a filter from a lab on the fourth floor in early January and found it had not been changed since Nov. 5, 2003, the report said. They told the professor who worked in that lab the filter is meant to be changed every three months — not 18 years.

The next day the supervisor of the building demanded the professor hand over the filter he'd kept, allegedly asking who gave him “the authority to keep this filter? You have to give it to me." The professor later filed a complaint about this interaction.

"I fear that they may want to get rid of this evidence," he wrote in the complaint. "We have complained for so long about 'black particles' in the building and being told over and over that the air is safe ... (seeing) this makes me sick to my stomach."

Contact Christopher Cann at ccann@tallahassee.com and follow @ChrisCannFL on Twitter.

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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Florida State Sandels building closed after cancer deaths, mold reports