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Katherine Grandstrand, Forum News Service, Published October 25 2013

High number of cancer cases spur worries about Dickinson junior high building

DICKINSON, N.D. – There is no conclusive evidence that Hagen Junior High has “sick building” syndrome.

After being prompted by community members – sometimes anonymously – this summer about the seemingly high rate of cancer among faculty and staff at the Dickinson school, Kevin Pavlish, environmental health practitioner for the Southwestern District Health Unit, met with Dickinson school officials to determine whether anything is wrong with the building.

“This is a fairly old building, so there have been a lot of people who have spent a fair amount of time in that building,” Pavlish said. “There has been some concern about (the) numbers of cancer cases that have occurred with people who, at one time or another, did work in that building.”

The early October meetings included Dickinson Public Schools Superintendent Doug Sullivan, Assistant Superintendent Vince Reep, Hagen Principal Marcus Lewton and Len Linbo, the school’s building and grounds coordinator. The group discussed the possibility that the 78-year-old building could contain carcinogens or other environmental aggressors that could be causing health issues.

The Southwestern District Health Unit had as many as 13 reported instances of cancer in current and former staff members, Pavlish said. None of the cancers were the same.

“It’s been pretty much all over the board, as far as the different types of cancer,” Pavlish said. “In my conversations with our state health officer and with the Centers for Disease Control, that’s one of the things they pointed out to me, is generally when you have a situation where the building may be of concern – as far as causing the cancer – you would see a common cancer thread through a good share of these cases. Right now that hasn’t been the case.”

Cancer isn’t often associated with sick building syndrome. Upper respiratory issues usually manifest in these types of instances, Reep said.

Pavlish said sick building syndrome is typically assessed to buildings with air quality issues, such as mold.

To develop cancer from a sick building, people would need to be exposed for long periods of time, Pavlish said – more than the approximately 500 hours students spend in the school during their two years of junior high.

“If anybody is at risk, it’s people that are there on a long-term basis,” Pavlish said. “You’re talking several years.”

Per Pavlish’s request, Reep compared the sick days used at Hagen to the sick days used at Dickinson High School over the past five years.

The two buildings are different: They use different heating and cooling systems, and were built nearly three decades apart.

Reep found that Hagen teachers were using one-third of a day more, on average, than DHS teachers.

“That tells me that they’re no different than anybody else,” Reep said.

It is not uncommon for those in the 40 to 55 age group to be diagnosed with cancer, Pavlish said.

The average age of teachers in the district is 47. At Hagen, Reep said it is 51.

“If that’s the average, there’s certainly many staff members that are well into their 50s – those of us that are there, you know, cancer catches people,” Reep said.

The district is watching the health of its junior high teachers and staff. But there is no evidence that environmental factors in the building are causing serious illness.

“If we thought we had a building that was creating a disease, we’d take it to the next step,” Reep said.

Hagen was built in 1935 and served as the city’s high school until DHS was built in the late 1960s. There have been two major additions or renovations to the school, one in the 1950s adding a shop and another in the 1990s creating the cafeteria.

The biggest problem Lewton and his staff have had with the building is policing the winding labyrinth of halls created for older students nearly eight decades ago. The additions only add to the winding pathways.

“It’s old,” Reep said. “The instructional space is not large enough.”

To help assess the district’s needs, a team of engineers is scheduled to evaluate all Dickinson Public Schools buildings the first full week of November. The faculty and staff at each building are participating in surveys as part of the process, and public input meetings will be held to see what facility should be built next in the district.

“There is no plan, and that’s by design,” Reep said. “We need the patrons and the community of Dickinson to help us decide what should be.”