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PlanetWaves Former New Paltz students reflection illness and PCB contamination

By Eric Francis | Return to Main Page
Woodstock Times, December 2000

Hazardous materials workers outside dormitory at the State University of New York at New Paltz, January 1992. See photo tour for more info.
Capen Residence Hall at SUNY New Paltz, where Jennifer Folster lived. Photo for Planet Waves by Steve Bergstein.
NINE YEARS after explosions and fires spread PCBs and dioxins in dormitories and at the State University of New York (SUNY) College at New Paltz, two former students are wondering whether their serious illnesses were caused by exposure to toxic chemicals there.

There is no direct evidence that any former students, including Jennifer Folster of Poughkeepsie, were ever exposed to the poisonous substances released by the incident. But Folster, who is in the last stages of terminal leukemia, lived in the basement of Capen Residence Hall during the 1992-93 academic year just down the corridor from where two PCB transformers burned the morning of Dec. 29, 1991. Initial measurements of the toxins in Capen Hall exceeded state safety limits by 800-fold, and after the hall was cleaned and reopened to students 33 days after the incident, numerous areas remained closed for additional decontamination.

Because the incident happened during the holiday break, only a small number of students were on campus at the time, all of them in Capen Hall. All had their clothing and jewelry taken away and were taken to area hospitals, though no treatment was available. The college moved quickly in the aftermath to begin a major cleanup of the chemicals released when the fire destroyed electrical transformers. The total price tag for the effort to remove the contamination exceeded $50 million and took five years to complete. But once state and county officials monitoring the cleanup declared the buildings safe, no follow-up health studies were done on the students who lived in the dorms.

Folster says she was among the "tiny handful" of students to first live in the Capen basement after the incident, moving there in the fall semester of 1992 and staying through the spring of 1993. She remembers living two doors down from a sealed room marked with a biohazard warning on the door. At the end of that academic year, she was hospitalized for mononucleosis infecting her liver and spleen. She said that her roommate was also frequently sick that year as well, and later had a miscarriage.

In the spring of 1999, Folster began to get ill again, and by July and was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). Genetic testing determined that she had the M2 variety, which Folster was told by her doctors is caused by a genetic predisposition that can be set into motion by exposure to environmental toxins.

"There's no other time in my life when I've been exposed to something which would cause leukemia," Folster said last week. Folster, who has not responded to chemotherapy treatments, is being kept alive by repeated blood transfusions, which she intends to stop before the year is over.

A Reasonable Question?

Dr. Phillip Landrigan is chairman of community medicine at Mt. Sinai Medical School and a leading expert on the connection between environmental toxins and human disease. Asked whether it made sense to question whether Folster's illness and living in Capen Hall are related, he said this week, "Her doctor said it could be, and that sounds like a reasonable statement."

Landrigan added, "Dioxin is clearly a very toxic chemical and it's a probable human carcinogen. The critical question is the extent to which the students were exposed when this event took place. Some were probably more heavily exposed than others, and they are right to be concerned."

"In light of the evidence that has surfaced since 1991 of the long term delayed effects of dioxin, it is not surprising that Ms. Folster is raising concerns about the cause of her cancer," said Dr. Theodora Colborn, author of Our Stolen Future and a toxins expert for the World Wildlife Fund.

"It is no secret that dioxin attacks the immune system and many cancers are caused by immune suppression. And dioxin undermines the endocrine system and disturbs metabolism."

Colborn said that last week a group of scientists recently confirmed the validity of studies which prove that 25,000 times or more lower does than the government has said are safe are not safe when they get into the embryo. "It is very complex and has different actions in different organ systems," she said.

A second former student, Tori Fano, has been diagnosed with type-one diabetes and hyperthyroid disease, and says that her health problems, including depression, weight loss, menstrual problems and the drying and thinning of her hair, date back to her last semester in New Paltz, the spring of 1992. Fano was not a resident of the contaminated dorms, but attended class during the most intense phase of the PCB cleanup, when the campus was strewn with toxic waste drums being filled by clean-up workers clad in white moonsuits and breathing bottled air.

"I am always leery about situations like that," Fano said. "I went back because I was told it was okay, but to be there during that semester it was disturbing to see cans and cans of PCBs."

For the most part, she said, students were not concerned about this, but she noticed. "Part of the reason I left was because I felt unsafe there. I didn't know how I felt about being at a school where there were tin drums of hazardous waste. I thought it was alarming. I thought it was irresponsible to let students back to the site with these tins around and buildings closed off."

But she said her friends have told her she is "reaching too far" in questioning whether there is a connection between New Paltz and her health problems.

Safety Assessment Outdated

State officials, for their part, have always maintained that the four dormitories and the outside environment of the campus are safe. Thousands of tests, taken by state contractors, seem to support their position, including a round of samples secretly collected in 1997 after the new president, Roger Bowen, took over the campus.

Yet the state's declaration of safety is based on re-entry guidelines finalized in 1985, originally for the PCB and dioxin-contaminated Binghamton State Office Building, which was tainted in a 1981 fire. These guidelines presumed that there was a safe level of PCBs and dioxins to which workers in that building could be exposed, a level which was also applied to the New Paltz dormitories. That level is one microgram of PCBs per cubic meter of air or square meter of surface area.

Toxins in New Paltz dormitories, particularly in the air, sometimes hovered just under those levels in the early years after the cleanup. At these concentrations, state officials predicted in 1985 that one person in a million would get cancer as a result of exposure to the contaminated buildings.

Yet in the 15 years since the guidelines were developed, science has made many strides in understanding the nature of what are now called "dioxin-like compounds," which include PCBs. Dioxin-like compounds are associated with a wide range of illnesses because they attack the immune and endocrine systems, as well as causing genetic damage and neurological problems. In addition, they are known to both cause and accelerate cancers. It is now agreed that there is no level of exposure at which it can be proven that these chemicals have no effect.

Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the latest draft of its reassessment of the toxicity of dioxin-like compounds. It has long been known that what are called background levels, or the body burden, of dioxin (now estimated at about 6-1/2 parts-per-trillion in fat tissue amongst the general population) is enough to cause serious illness in some people. But in June, the EPA said that for cancer, the occurrence of disease could be as low as one person per 100 based only on current body burdens. "This range for cancer risk indicates an about 10-fold higher chance than estimated in EPA's earlier (1994) draft of this reassessment," the agency said.

Additional exposure, such as from a toxic release, could increase that risk substantially.

"If I were exposed, and if I knew I were exposed and I got cancer, I would be justified in saying that I am one of the one in 100 who get cancer," said Carol van Strum, author of A Bitter Fog and a dioxin researcher of more than 30 years. She has served Greenpeace and has worked on toxins lawsuits against major corporations.

In terms of Fano's non-cancer illnesses, van Strum said, "PCBs and dioxins affect the hair follicles. That is where chloracne comes from." Chloracne was the first documented medical effect of exposure to chlorinated toxins such as PCBs and dioxins, documented as early as 1936. "The follicles change radically, including all the secretions from the sebaceous glands that are in the follicle. I would say that it's very likely related. It would certainly indicate that something is affecting her.

"There is not much question that diabetes and dioxins are related. Dioxin is belatedly being recognized by the Veterans Administration as a combat-related effect from exposure to Agent Orange." And in many other cases of exposure, she said, "All the blood sugar balances were almost uniformly screwed up."

But van Strum said that making a case against the campus might be difficult.

"There's always going to be the problem of proof, especially in this society where you're exposed to a whole brew of nasties every day. But the real issue is that they [state officials] knew the stuff was in the buildings, they said it was safe and they let people in. It's important to recognize that PCBs and dioxins are not only carcinogens, they are cancer promoters. They enhance the potency of other carcinogens that may be present, and also increase the speed with which they act."

This acceleration factor, she said, reduces the usual latency period of cancer substantially.

"Unlike a lot of known carcinogens, there is no red flag cancer for dioxin," said van Strum. "In one person it can be stomach cancer, in another, lung cancer, in another, leukemia. They get them all. It's all over the map. When you look at the studies, where you notice the biggest increase is for all cancers when you put them together. Industry loves to harp on the fact that there is no increase in any one particular cancer," with the only exception being the extremely rare soft tissue sarcoma.

But, she added, dioxin's non-cancer effects are not well understood. "They don't know why animals die when they are exposed to dioxin. They just shut down."

Vents Never Tested

Capen Hall has been the subject of ongoing controversy because, according to government documents and statements of state officials, air ducts in that building were never checked for PCB or dioxin contamination. Vents in nearly identical Bliss, Gage and Scudder halls were all found to have been contaminated with PCBs and were cleaned at a high cost as part a cleanup that has set taxpayers back well in excess of $50 million, and was declared complete in 1997.

The Gage Hall vents, however, were cleaned years after students were moved back in, and only after independent testing conducted by this newspaper proved that the vents were contaminated. Yet despite the presence of contaminants in vents in the three other buildings, state officials have insisted that the Capen vents did not need to be tested for PCBs because they are not contaminated.

"The vents were certainly coated by a layer of dust on a sticky oily surface" at the time she lived there, Folster said, an account which is consistent with the descriptions of many other residents who said that the building appeared not to have been thoroughly cleaned. Capen Hall was given what is called an industrial cleaning, consisting of washing horizontal surfaces with a mixture of Tide detergent and water, and cleaning contact surfaces such as toilet seats and doorknobs.

The heating system of Capen Hall was also never tested for contamination, despite the fact that the heat in nearby Bliss Hall was tested and found to be a pathway for contamination. PCB smoke in Capen reached as high as the second floor, according to Matthew Dunphy, a resident advisor who was one of about 15 students evacuated from the building the morning of Dec. 29, 1991.

Health Survey Called For

"What has to be done immediately is that we need to secure the names and addresses of the students who were there so that a health survey can be sent out," said Ellen Connett, director of Work on Waste USA, a New York-based citizen group that monitors dioxin issues. "This is very serious, and I think everybody wants to stay clear away from it because they realize the implications. If there is negligence it's obvious that the state will be held accountable and might not want to participate as fully as it should because of the liability issue."

Connett said that response of government in New Paltz is hardly unique.

"We know again and again and again what history tells us with contaminated communities is that government avoids them like the plague. Look at Times Beach. They never followed up on this little community that the government bought out. There were less than 3,000 people. At every corner, the scientific manipulation was incredible. People weren't looking and they didn't want to know. They don't want to know because of liabilities."

Colborn concurred. "I agree that an intensive health follow up of anyone who lived in close proximity to the explosion should be taken."

Folster, who said she is at peace with the fact that she is in the late stages of terminal illness, appealed to New Paltz students living in the four dormitories to "get out and insist that they are cleaned. Ultimately it's your choice." Folster was aware of the problem when she was a Capen resident but said she was too overwhelmed to respond to warnings.

She added that choice to move out may be complicated by other factors. "It's just not their own decision. They have to stand up to the school and their parents and there's going to be a lot of pressure. And where are they going to move to? It's an overwhelming thing to a person who is in college and trying to study saying, 'I can't do that', because they're lazy and don't know where to start in the first place."++

Additional Research: Debbe Faulhaber and Wendy Rose

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