Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

April 13, 1995

Despite Parkinson's cases, Allen Hall is safe, committee determines

Allen Hall is safe, according to the Parkinson's Disease Cluster Committee. The four cases of Parkinson's disease reported between 1974 and 1991 in physics department faculty members who worked in the building may have been simply the result of chance.

Those are the conclusions reached by the cluster committee, which has been investigating for almost two years the unusual number of occurrences of Parkinson's disease in Allen Hall.

According to committee member Roger Simon, chairperson of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's (UPMC) Department of Neurology, Parkinson's disease occurs in about 200 individuals per every 100,000 people in a population. The outbreak in Allen Hall, the committee found, is about 30 percent higher than in the general population.

However, according to committee member David Tollerud, director of occupational and environmental medicine in the Graduate School of Public Health, the 30 percent higher than normal figure in Allen Hall does not indicate any causation or point to the building as the source for the disease. It simply confirms that the occurrences are unusual.

"If you take enough people and wait a long enough time, you will see remarkable clusters of almost anything you want to look at," Tollerud said.

"Often you can't explain a [disease] cluster," added committee consultant Allison Tepper, of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). "It is a statistical phenomena that occurs in a population by chance. I think the conclusions that have been drawn here are correct." Along with Simon and Tollerud, cluster committee members include: chairperson Michael Zigmond, neuroscience; John Grence, Norman Austern, Ray Willey and Frank Tabakin, all of physics and astronomy; Rosalyn Pinkus, the Center for Medical Ethics; Howard Rockette, biostatistics, and W. Richard Howe, Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean's office.

In addition to Tepper, outside consultants to the committee include: Carolyn Tanner, of The Parkinson's Institute, and William Scorby, a military physician with experience in cluster investigations.

"Much research, hours of meetings and consultation with several experts in the field indicate to us that Allen Hall is safe and can continue to be used by students, staff and faculty," said committee chairperson Zig-mond, during an April 3 open meeting with physics and astronomy staff, faculty and graduate students.

"More specifically," he continued, "exhaustive testing of the air, the dust and the building materials in Allen Hall have failed to uncover a single indication of any reason to consider the building to be hazardous." Although the committee has concluded that Allen Hall is safe, committee members are aware that some people who work in the building may be worried that they have developed Parkinson's disease. To help alleviate those concerns, committee member Simon, a neurologist, said he would test anybody who is worried about having contracted the disease because of working in the building. But Simon noted that early diagnosis of Parkinson's disease is very difficult and that there is little advantage to detecting the disease early. Drugs can counteract some of the effects of the disease, even in people who have had it for many years, but there is no cure and its progress cannot be stopped by early treatment.

"If one were to delay a month or a year or seven to nine years before testing, it wouldn't change the therapy, speaking as of today," Simon said.

Parkinson's disease has afflicted humans for thousands of years, according to Simon. Once called "paralysis agitans" and "shaking palsy," it became known as Parkinson's disease after the English physician James Parkinson described it in his 1817 book "An Essay on Shaking Palsy." A progressive nervous disorder of a person's later years, Parkinson's disease is characterized by muscular tremor, slowing of movement, partial facial paralysis, peculiarity of gait and posture, and a general weakness. The exact cause or causes of the disease is unknown and there is no cure, but it is increasingly being linked to toxic substances in the environment, according to the American Parkinson's Disease Association.

Committee chair Zigmond admitted to the more than two dozen people who gathered in Thaw Hall to hear the committee's report that it is possible some contaminant was once present in the building, but has now vanished. He added, however, that "it now seems likely that the relatively high incidence of the disorder had nothing at all to do with the Allen Hall environment." "In any event," Zigmond continued, "the bottom line remains: We find absolutely no reason for concern regarding the safety of the building today." Committee consultant Tepper, who is a NIOSH authority on disease clusters, said that in the course of the Pitt investigation she also investigated a similar cluster occurrence of Parkinson's disease in the physics department of Penn State University. The building in which that cluster occurred had absolutely nothing in common with Allen Hall, she said.

Besides Allen Hall and Penn State, Tepper said the only other place she knew of where a similar cluster outbreak of the disease has occurred was a kibbutz in Israel in the 1960s.

Located at 3941 O'Hara St., Allen Hall was built in 1913 as the original home of Mellon Institute.

Some of the institute's researchers specialized in industrial chemistry. Their projects included testing Union Carbide Corp. products for possible toxic hazards and investigating the effects of asbestos and silica dust on the lungs.

Mellon Institute ceded the building to Pitt in 1939. It was remodeled to provide laboratories and classrooms for Pitt's medical school, including the biochemistry department, which was located on the second floor. As medical school departments and remaining Mellon Institute researchers gradually moved out of the building in the 1950s, the physics faculty moved into Allen Hall. By 1960, the physics department had taken over the entire building.

Cluster committee member Austern became the first physics professor to be assigned an office in Allen Hall in 1958. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1981.

Other physics faculty members who were diagnosed with the disease are: * Former physics department chairperson Frederic Keffer, who was the first person diagnosed with the disease in 1974. He died in December 1992 at the age of 73.

* Professor emeritus John Townsend, diagnosed in 1985.

* Cluster committee member Ray Willey, diagnosed in 1991. It was Willey's diagnosis that lead to the charging of the committee by Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Peter Koehler and the investigation of Allen Hall for a possible cause or causes of the disease.

According to committee member Tollerud, the investigation was conducted using guidelines set by the United States Centers for Disease Control.

The first question investigators sought to answer was whether or not the four cases in Allen Hall were unusual in relationship to what is known about Parkinson's disease in the general population.

After confirming that the cluster in Allen Hall was about 30 percent higher than in the general population, investigators did an extensive literature review and developed a list of known possible causes of Parkinson's disease as a target for the investigation. They followed up that review with interviews of the four faculty members who had been diagnosed with the disease. They talked to them about everything from their work history to their hobbies, going so far as to draw diagrams of their offices and compare them to the various uses of Allen Hall since it was constructed in 1913.

Samples also were taken of the building's dust, bricks, mortar, stone, plaster and other building materials and analyzed, by outside laboratories, to determine if a toxic residue of some sort from previous activities in the building might have caused the cluster. A drainpipe encrusted with decades-worth of disposed chemicals and other potentially toxic materials was sent to an independent laboratory to be analyzed.

"It was with some trepidation that we took that sample [the pipe] and sent it off to have it analyzed because we knew what we were going to get back was a very long list of chemicals," said Tollerud.

"Still, I don't think we were quite prepared for the volume we got. There were pages and pages and pages and pages and pages of chemicals, some of which we later found out were part of the normal makeup of clay pipe. We now know more than we care to know about the normal makeup of clay pipe." Among all of the chemicals found in the pipe, though, nothing could be identified that is clearly linked with Parkinson's disease. And among the building materials only three substances were found with links to Parkinson's disease. They were manganese, chlordane and lindane.

Manganese has been shown to cause Parkinson's disease in miners who inhale its dust. However, the manganese found in Allen Hall was 1,000 times below the levels considered safe by the federal government and was sealed within the building's bricks.

Chlordane and lindane were among the ingredients of once common pesticides banned 10-15 years ago. The amounts of both chlordane and lindane found at Allen Hall were very tiny and only on the outside of the building.

"The bottom line to all of our technical investigation was that we really could not find anything that scientifically or medically was of any concern or that we could link in anyway to the Parkinson's cluster," said Tollerud.

–Mike Sajna

Leave a Reply