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NC State alumni report 150+ cancer cases possibly stemming from contaminants in shut-down campus building

NC State alumni report 150+ cancer cases possibly stemming from contaminants in shut-down campus building

North Carolina State University in Raleigh continues to investigate student and alumni exposure to concerning levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a probable carcinogen, in one of its campus buildings that the school officially shut down in November of last year.

More than 150 cancer cases in people who attended classes at Poe Hall have been reported to local news outlet WRAL, which began probing concerns about the building starting around November 2023, a month after PCB levels at more than 38 times the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) standards for building materials were detected inside five rooms within the building. 

"I was finishing up my finals, and I was going in for a physical at the health center. … I was having night sweats for weeks and weeks before this, and I could not figure out what was happening," NC State alumna Christie Lewis told Fox News Digital. "I was having to get up in the middle of night and change clothes completely. And then I would fall asleep. And I had to put a towel down. It honestly took me weeks to even tell my husband about them because I kept on forgetting about it because it was just in the middle of the night."

Lewis attended NC State between 2007 and 2012. She began studying in the business school and eventually ended up in the education department, where she took classes in Poe Hall, which housed NC State's College of Education and Department of Psychology, "for about four years," she said.

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Around 2011 or 2021, while in college, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Months later, after discovering a lump on her neck, she was diagnosed with angiosarcoma.

"And so just as I'm finishing up my finals and my papers, I'm going to see an endocrinologist and they're doing a biopsy of my neck, and that's traumatic," she said. "They don't sedate you or anything. They just kind of shove a huge needle into your throat and jab it around everywhere."

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When she was diagnosed, her first thought was "people get cancer," Lewis recalled. But when she heard that the number of NC State alumni who were diagnosed with cancer was three times the number of average cancer cases in Wake County, as WRAL first reported, she became more skeptical.  

"I could have never made that connection by myself because I didn't know anybody else. I was the only one in my little cohort of classmates who had cancer when I was in college," she said. "And I just thought that something was just wrong with my body. That something was wrong with me. I have four siblings, and everybody's so healthy except for me."

When she started reading reports about a potential link between Poe Hall and cancer cases, she thought: "Maybe my body isn't the problem. Maybe I was actually exposed to something that caused this. I don't know, it definitely shook me a little bit."

Poe Hall was constructed in 1971, when the use of PCBs in construction materials were common, but they would come to an end by the next decade.

The 152 total cancer cases in people who attended classes at Poe Hall reported to WRAL have not officially been linked to the building, nor can the cases officially be categorized as a "cluster," which is "the occurrence of a greater than expected number of cancer cases among a group of people in a defined geographic area over a specific time period," according to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Jennifer Walter, another NC State alumna, was also diagnosed with thyroid cancer and synovial sarcoma years after attending NC State between 2004 and 2007. She attended classes in Poe Hall as a psychology major.

Walter was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2017 after years of trying to determine what was wrong with her. The synovial sarcoma diagnosis came later, in 2022.

"The biggest symptom was the fatigue," Walter told Fox News Digital. "They had tested me for mono and all other things like that. … It was debilitating. I was able to work, but I couldn't do anything else. And then there was really bad joint pain. So, I got tested for arthritis and all those types of things. Of course, they didn't find anything. But it was, again, just debilitating. I couldn't do anything. I was barely able to work, and then that was it. I would just go home and go to sleep."

"I was engaged, and then I wasn't," Walter said when asked how the diagnosis had impacted her life. 

To Walter, her thyroid cancer "wasn't a huge deal," but the sarcoma changed her life, she said. 

"I have medical trauma or medical PTSD, I think they call it. Around my scans, I get ridiculously anxious, because you never know if what's going to come back," she said. "There are such scary statistics that are tied with sarcoma. It's just a lot more real. … They got it early, which I'm grateful for, but that fear never goes away. It's something I'm going to have every day for the rest of my life."

Since shutting down Poe Hall, NC State has created a webpage directing users to updates about its investigation into contaminants in Poe Hall and how the school continues to analyze testing results. The University referred Fox News Digital to the webpage when asked if they would like to share a statement in response to ongoing concerns.

"The university remains committed to doing the right things to ensure this is a safe place to work, learn and live," reads a statement from Chancellor Randy Woodson on the page.

The webpage notes that the school initially received information from the Occupational Safety and Health Division of the North Carolina Department of Labor (NC DOL) saying an NC State employee had submitted a "complaint concerning alleged health and/or safety hazards related to Poe Hall" in August 2023.

Health officials began sampling in the building in October. The initial phase of NC State's Indoor Environmental Investigation Report sharing sample test results are available on NC State's website.

"Poe Hall is a 7-story academic building constructed in approximately 1971, when PCBs were widely used in building materials, such as paint, caulk, and some mastics, across the United States," the report notes. "PCBs are a family of related artificial compounds, manufactured for use in a multitude of industrial and commercial products prior to 1979, when they were banned in the United States."

On March 25, Chancellor Woodson spoke during a webinar with epidemiologists Dr. Zack Moore, of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS), and Dr. Andy Olshan, of the University of North Carolina (UNC)-Chapel Hill. Moore explained during the webinar that "most" groups of cancer cases stemming from a specific area "don't" fit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) definion of a "cancer cluster."

"[CDC] guidance defines a cancer cluster as a higher-than-expected number of cases of the same or related cancers in a particular area over a particular period of time. So, not every concern that comes up meets that definition of a cancer cluster. In fact, most don't," Moore said during the March 25 webinar. "That's not because it's some impossibly strict definition, that's because of challenges with actually having the data to understand whether a cluster is really present."

NCDHHS said in a statement to Fox News Digital that "NC State has taken action to protect the public’s health including notifying staff about concerns, closing Poe Hall and consulting with an outside environmental expert to initiate remediation of the building."

"NCDHHS is in frequent communication with NC State and understands NC State and [National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] will be working together on the investigation at Poe Hall. Investigating potential linkage of cancer cases to occupational exposures is challenging and part of the specialized work of NIOSH," the agency said, adding that NCDHHS does "not have information on whether the NC State situation will ultimately be determined to meet" the CDC's most recent definition of a "cluster."

Ben Whitley, an attorney at Whitley Law Firm in Raleigh, said his firm is looking into litigation against Monsanto, the company that made the materials that contained PCBs used in the construction of Poe Hall. He noted that Vermont recently passed a law requiring testing of school buildings renovated before 1980 for PCBs.

"Unfortunately, I think we're going to see it more and more in these buildings that were built during that range — 1971 to 1979. That's when the PCBs were around. They were being used in caulking and insulation and they were like this wonder material," Whitley explained to Fox News Digital. 

Whitley added that NC State may see more issues with PCB contamination as it tests more buildings on campus.

Lewis said she feels "violated" because she trusted that she was "getting a good education…in a safe place," and then "all of a sudden," she was "put in unsafe conditions." She also has concerns that the "forever chemicals" can "pass in utero" and therefore onto her children.

"It's made me just feel really nervous," she said.

Walter similarly said the Poe Hall investigation has made her question "what else" she and her family have been or are being exposed to in their everyday environments.

"I feel like we deserve more answers. If there are more answers to be had … everyone should be actively looking for that," she said.

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