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Posted on Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 2:57 p.m.

Vada Murray believed radon, asbestos at Ann Arbor city hall caused his fatal lung cancer

By Juliana Keeping


A photo of Vada Murray in Ann Arbor's Police-Courts building.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Vada Murray filed a worker's compensation claim prior to his death, alleging that radon or asbestos at Ann Arbor's city hall caused his fatal lung cancer.

The workers' compensation case filed by the late Ann Arbor police officer and former University of Michigan football player in July 2009 pits Murray's family against a city that denies through its attorney that Murray's death can be tied to the city building.

Murray died April 6, two-and-a-half years after a lung cancer diagnosis.

The case could result in payment of outstanding medical bills and lost wages to Murray's family, said attorney Michael Otis, who did not name a figure.

A judge with the Michigan Workers’ Compensation Agency will issue an opinion on the case. A trial date has not been scheduled.

Recently released city records indicate that radon, a cancer-causing gas, was present at levels seven times the federal safety level in the basement and first floor of city hall, where several police department offices were housed until 2009. Court records from an unrelated pending whistleblower’s lawsuit show that police department employees had grave concerns about health risks from radon and also asbestos, primarily in the basement, beginning as early as November 2008, within a month of Murray's cancer diagnosis.


Sarah and Vada Murray in a 2008 file photo.

Ann Arbor News file photo

A radon mitigation system was installed in the basement in 1994 and it remained in place even as tests showed high radon levels in early 2009, when the offices were closed amid construction of the just-opened police-courts building.

Murray, who never smoked but was diagnosed with lung cancer in October 2008, gave video testimony at his home on March 3 that was recorded for later use after doctors found his cancer had spread to the 43-year-old’s brain. He was too ill to leave home at that time, his wife, Sarah Murray, said.

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During the March 3 video-recorded meeting, Murray Feldman, an attorney representing Ann Arbor, said no medical evidence had been presented that directly linked an exposure to radon or asbestos on the job to Murray’s cancer, according to 47-page transcript.

Murray described his upbringing in Cincinnati, his family, involvement with sports and his time in Ann Arbor as a University of Michigan defensive back during his recorded testimony.

He also talked about his shocking cancer diagnosis and conditions in the basement of city hall, 100 N. Fifth St. in Ann Arbor, where he worked roughly 7 or 8 hours per week when not on the road or elsewhere in the building.

In the basement and first floor, the ceiling was always damp, always leaking, he said.

“Some guys used to get so mad, because, you know, stuff was leaking on them,” he said. “They’d take their nightsticks and jab at it, and it would just come crumbling down. Water dripping down the wall. There were pipes with stuff around them that you wouldn’t - you wouldn’t want to touch.”

That “stuff” was green and yellow.

Water consistently leaked in the ceiling tiles in the basement and the first floor, he said.

“There were times where you’d come in, and there’s eight or nine buckets on throughout the floor catching water,” he said.

Murray said that besides buckets on the floor, there were around 50 buckets in the ceiling to catch the water.

“The best way to put it, you can’t take 25 bucks and try and fix a $100,000 ceiling.”

Yet Feldman referenced a 16-page report by a U-M doctor hired by the city’s insurance carrier to bolster the assertion that the city building could not be proven at fault.

The doctor’s report concluded that though radon and asbestos were present at city hall while Murray was employed, exposure was not long or intense enough to cause lung cancer. The doctor’s report explored city-commissioned tests for radon and asbestos, 2009 inspections by the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration, various health studies and Murray’s health records to reach its conclusion.

Asbestos was present in “various bulk building materials” while Murray was employed, the report states.

The doctor’s report cites MIOSHA reports from 2009 that say asbestos in the building was “below required MIOSHA limits,” but it was present in 2009 at low levels in the air.

“While it is well known that radon and asbestos are human lung carcinogens, the question I was asked to address was whether or not, within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, Mr. Murray’s diagnosis of lung cancer in October 2008 was caused, aggravated, accelerated and/or contributed to by his alleged workplace exposures,” writes Alfred Franzblau, an associate dean with the U-M School of Public Health who wrote the report Feldman referenced during the testimony. “The short answer is no.”

Murray’s attorney plans to produce an expert report that will support Sarah and Vada Murray’s claim, Otis said.

The transcript also details how Murray was diagnosed with lung cancer following a doctor's visit for recurring pain in his chest and difficulty breathing.

Talking about the situation was emotional for Murray, who paused at times to collect himself.

"It ain't ... fair," Murray said as he described the struggle of doctors to try to control the cancer.

Murray lived three times longer than the typical late-stage lung cancer patient, said Greg Kalemkerian, Murray’s doctor and the director of the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Multidisciplinary Lung Cancer Clinic.

“He was a phenomenal physical specimen, and he was young. All those things worked in his favor, but overall, his disease was caught at a later stage,” Kalemkerian said.

In the United States, roughly 20,000 to 25,000 individuals who have never smoked are diagnosed with lung cancer every year. About 160,000 people a year die from the disease in the U.S.

Radon and asbestos are known to cause lung cancer, Kalemkerian said, yet for those who don’t smoke, the cause is difficult to pin down.

“For most people, people like Mr. Murray, who knows?” he said. “We don’t know exactly, and there’s no way to tell, even if you've got a non smokers cancer sitting in your hand, we don’t have any tests to look for any specific cause.”

As the family waits for the workers’ compensation case to move forward, questions surrounding her husband’s cancer diagnosis continue to haunt her, Sarah Murray said this week.

“I feel like I’m haunted by those questions,” said Sarah Murray, who married Vada Murray in 2001. “It’s all I can think about. How and why? How did this happen to Vada?”

Juliana Keeping covers general assignment and health and the environment for Reach her at or 734-623-2528. Follow Juliana Keeping on Twitter


say it plain

Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 4:23 p.m.

I'm sorry to hear about your family's terrible loss, @Tru2Blu76. Of course we can never know with certainty--save perhaps for those exposed to the kinds of drastic hazards that, say, the nuclear power plant workers in Japan are currently braving--why someone's immune system goes awry like that. And I'm not a lawyer, so I don't know what standards of proof are required in court with such a matter. But I'm guessing you'd need to show elevated rates of disease in the population of people who were exposed. And you'd perhaps also need to show negligence in dealing with a clear environmental problem. Medical science hasn't worked out the 'absolutes' in these matters, and it's not clear they ever could, really, because these are probabilistic processes, and complicated processes, whereby the immune system sometimes can be strong and resilient in the face of challenges (like for your sister who smokes but whose very twin developed fatal disease so very young) and sometimes succumbs or goes awry even in the face of no known challenges at all. We don't have to know all the answers, is the point, to make decisions about what should be avoided generally, and it sounds like the exposure these employees were faced with was a clear danger, and one that the city could have, should have, remedied.

say it plain

Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 5:01 p.m.

Actually, I think there were a number of obvious problems with the city's responses here, beyond refusing apparently to fix the persistent leaks. One, they failed to properly remediate the over-EPA-action-level radon. I can put a fan in a building and that counts as 'trying' right but it has to be monitored for effectiveness, wouldn't you think? Two, they allowed for exposure to asbestos. Indeed, it is claimed that re-wiring and re-modeling work was done without the proper safeguards in place. The city probably requires or suggests at the least that homeowners who must remodel or rewiring where there is asbestos-containing materials about use contractors who specialize in such work, and maintain proper sealing off of the disturbed materials and cleanup. It sounds like they may have skipped this. Three, the plumbing issues they failed to take care of were not merely inconvenience, but led to pervasive and dangerous mold. It is the responsibility of the employer to avoid exposing their employees to such things, or don't you think?


Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 4:44 p.m.

We may not need to know ALL the answers - but some answers we do need are yet to be determined. I disagree with anyone who says that those working in the basement of the Larcom building were in "clear danger." - The city administration DID take remedial steps, starting about 17 years ago. So if anything, officers like Mr. Murray were working just a few hours per week in a reduced threat environment. The most egregious thing we can pin on the city is that they failed to put plumbing repairs for that building into the city budget. That should have been done ASAP.


Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 3:53 p.m.

While Mr. Murray's illness and death are tragic, it might help if people took a less emotional view of his case. Few individuals or families have this experience where someone is stricken with cancer and there seems to be just one cause, no matter that it's not proven. It happens that our family suffered such a loss: my sister developed bone cancer at age 11 and, until that point, she was in perfect health. That cancer was treated and she seemed to be doing well: then she developed respiratory problems and that proved to be very aggressive lung cancer. She died about one year after the first diagnosis. Her illness and death caused indescribable fear and grief which carried with us for the rest of our lives. But - no definitive cause for her cancer was ever found. It's inexplicable. The best medical care and hundreds of fervent prayers didn't save her. But her twin sister survived and lives today - despite that she's a long-time smoker. The point: it just seems obvious that Mr. Murray "must" have been affected by this low-level radon threat. What seems obvious is not proof. At this point: certainly it's not cause for hurling accusations at the city government. My sister and Mr. Murray both deserved to live their full lives. But our emotional reaction against such apparently unjustified deaths only seems to justify our "certainty" that we know the cause and who is guilty.


Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 3:41 p.m.

It's pretty shocking to learn how bad the working conditions were for officers like Mr. Murray. No one should have to work in an office like that with known carcinogens. I feel sorry for his family having to deal with this after his death. It will be hard to prove in the courts unfortunately. There are so many pollutants and toxins that people breathe in every day, trying to tie the cancer to one sources would be almost impossible I'd guess. At the same time, I don't think that excuses the city for neglecting the working conditions for the police officers. I pray that Office Murray's family receives some financial compensation out of this.


Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 2 p.m.

The city could have invested funds in mitigating the radon while totally renovating city hall. Instead, they chose to build a new building as a monument to their arrogance and as a display of their crassness. As a result of this irresponsible strategy, they condemned the police and their families to a future filled with declining health and premature deaths. Yet the Hieftje-Frazier cabal continue to be rewarded and continue to call the shots.

Wolf's Bane

Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 12:49 p.m.

First, my condolences to the Murray family, it appears that the city really dropped the ball here on protecting its employees. Second, did U of M Hospitals do an autopsy on Vada or could they perhaps exhume is body now and do a necropsy; testing his tissue for radon and asbestos poisoning?


Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 12:05 p.m.

Data people, data - we need better data and better research and blame, especially with Officer Murray's loss so fresh and painful. This city has been a big talking, low performance hypocrisy for as long as I've been here. Resting on liberal laurels while taking a white knuckled conservative approach on everything EXCEPT self-aggrandizement. Demanding that property owners repair city sidewalks while foisting more of them on neighborhoods that don't want them. Regulating where you put your trash can and your grass length while talking about an income tax to pay for ti. A Bicycling city where the inhabitants spit and throw things a cyclists. A Tree City that allows unchallenged damage to its trees via DTE. A city that is much more worried about a few chickens that the uncontrolled dangerous dogs. A city that will publicly blackmail its DDA for money by saying its for Fire and Police when there is money in the city budget elsewhere. LOAD OF HOKE. And finally, lets not confuse the building of an ugly robo-cop-esque taj mahal to city government with taking simple easy steps to ensure the health and safety of Ann Arbor's employees - like moving them into the various empty buildings /spaces in downtown.


Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 5:18 a.m.

This is so sad. My mother died from lung cancer and she too did not smoke. She thought that asbestos may have caused her illness. I remember Vada Murray patrolling UM's secondary with Tripp Welborne in the late 80's. What a great pair of safeties they were! My thoughts to Murray's family. Say Hi to Bo for us, Vada.


Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 4:34 a.m.

My heart goes out to the family. How can our city maintain these conditions for those who serve the public and put themselves at risk to do so? They should not be risked in other ways. I am glad that the Union spoke out, even though it was not soon enough for some. I'm glad there is a lawsuit as well from some other source. It is terrible to think that the city knew and did nothing to remedy the problem.


Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 2:27 a.m.

@rosewwater Yes...there are other sick people...retirees and current employees have cancers ; lung, thyroid and blood. There are others with respiratory and immune system disorders. Only the future will tell what is in store for the rest of the people who have breathed this air...

zip the cat

Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 11:28 p.m.

Its simple,if your health is a issue in your work area. Refuse to work in the area, What are they going to do fire everybody.? If they won't fix the area,SUE there socks off.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 10:23 p.m.

I concur with a number of others - for a city that seems to pride itself for being on the cutting edge of environmental policy, the deplorable conditions seem to rival those of 1300 Beaubien (DPD HQ) in Detroit where things have gotten so bad that some floors are closed off to personnel. How could the city that loves to tout it's ranking as an extremely safe place to live, along with it's "green" agenda allow the very people that keep it that way to work in a building that is the complete antithesis? Another example of bureaucracy and red tape at its finest..... or its worst depending on if you are a politician or a public servant.

white ribbon 1

Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 9:17 p.m.

So very sad. My deep condolences go out to the Murray family. Unfortunately it will likely be impossible to prove what caused Vada's lung cancer. And the reason is that Lung Cancer research is so badly underfunded. More people die from Lung Cancer every year than from Breast, Colon, Prostate and Liver Cancer COMBINED! For every person who dies from Breast Cancer approximately 29,000 dollars are spent on Breast Cancer research each year. Yet for every person who dies from Lung Cancer approximately 1,200 dollars are spent on research. YES you read that correctly. 29 thousand vs. 12 hundred. (Lung Cancer Alliance 2010 stats). The reasons for this are many, but advocates believe that it is because lung cancer is considered to be a "smokers disease". And because Breast and Colon cancers are much more treatable, there are more survivors. More individuals with passion and conviction who become activists and give purpose to their unfortunate diagnoses by raising awareness and funding. More money, more research, more treatments and more information about the OTHER causes of this disease. Far too few of us survive a lung cancer battle. And many surviving family members avoid activism because of the stigma associated with the diagnosis. I hope our community will rally around Sara in the coming days and support her efforts to raise awareness about Lung Cancer.


Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 4:07 p.m.

You make a very good point. I add that there is virtually no support for those addicted to nicotine. The latest drug treatment (Chantix®) costs a few hundred dollars for a 12-week course but it's often necessary to go through multiple courses - and the cost is not covered by health insurance. And: the drug is effective in just 44% of cases. On top of that, the "solution" offered by governments and society is to punish and ostracize the victims. "No Smoking" signs posted all over are what we see as "the answer" because: it suits our prejudices and sense of annoyance. All of this is just slap-dash simplistic (and pretentious) thinking.

John B.

Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 8:55 p.m.

@rosewater: Unfortunately, it will take another twenty years or so to fully answer that question.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 8:34 p.m.

Are others sick?


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 8:26 p.m.

Wow, moral outrage at the City making officers work under these conditions. Are these the same people who were screaming about how much the City Hall addition was costing and how we didn't need it? I'm thinking that several of those posturing here were constantly posturing about that very issue not too long ago. If it really isn't possible to prove that the working conditions caused his cancer, which it may not be, then it would be good to have the decision made sooner rather than later so the Murray family can try to move forward. Very sad business all the way around.

Stephen Landes

Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 1:10 p.m.

Assuming that the City Hall addition is the only way of correcting the problem with the basement Police Department offices is not logical. We could have done many other things that COULD have been less expensive and been implemented faster than the building we built. No "fountain to nowhere" is going to improve the working conditions for a single policeman. However, immediately renting space in a commercially owned building could have relieved the situation years ago.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 8:10 p.m.

Cover Up by the Fraser go to do more damage for the State of Michigan when he leaves for Lansing? Is this why he is leaving?


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 8:05 p.m.

Records showed that the radon levels were 7 times higher than federal safety regulations until 2009 even with a mitigation system present. Seven times higher! I don't think their union was responsible for the radon. The union addressed the health and welfare concerns of its members. Unions were created as a response to unfair, unsafe working conditions imposed upon the working class in America and, in this case at least, it appears the union addressed a serious condition that threatened the health and well-bing of its members.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 7:57 p.m.

I have to agree with @shadow wilson The City talks a huge game whne it comes to "Green" and "Public Safety"...but when it comes right down to the rubber meeting the road, its all lip service....or perhaps a ongoing ploy to get government grants by appearing to be engaged in all of this. Examine the evidence: 1. They make developers and homeowners appear multiple times to get approvals for simple little things, then ignore titanic safety issues in their own police basement. 2. They put little oprange stickers on YOUR garbage if you haven't cut your lawn refuse to the proper length, yet the highways and downtown areas for which they are responsible, are strewn with garbage. 3. The look to a city income tax to increase revenues, then give Roger Fraser 60% ofhis salary and lifetime healthcare after 9 years on the job. The priority of city govenment is to make the residents jump through the hoops they put there -- but they are allowed to completely ignore them. It's a joke.

Kai Petainen

Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 1:11 a.m.

they make you get phosphoric free fertilizer, but then don't solve the 88% confidence phosphoric (source AAFD) acid spill onto the huron river? they build parking lots beside rivers/parks and fire firefighters?

David Brownie

Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 7:47 p.m.

let's pray for his family during this battle. It sounds as if the city is responsible...that's my opinion. you can't say they are 100% reliable as they can't say they aren't. Like said in the article....there are no specific tests. So why are they so quick to say that they aren't at fault? So you and such a battle. He was an employee of the city as well as a loved football player....isn't that enough to say that he gave his all to Ann Arbor? Bless his family!


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 7:47 p.m.

Condolences to the Murray family, and to all the city employees that worked in that dismal basement in city hall. The city had two appropriate actions regarding radon. 1) Mitigate and monitor 2) Relocate employees if mitigation failed Instead, the city choose to ignore the problem. It appears that the city knowingly subjected city employees to hazardous conditions in their work environment. What a sad commentary for our city. . .


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 7:33 p.m.

Lets prove it first then we shall talk about it, the union feels everything is wrong in this world.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 8:21 p.m.

I would think that in light of this young hero's death, we could let go of the union hatred for a few minutes.

shadow wilson

Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 7:32 p.m.

For all it's self congratulatory nonsense, and energy commissions, and green authorities it appears A2 is no different than anywhere else........exposing mid level and lower to health risks while giving the departing city admin a very sweet deal...........I am not against the admin receiving some compensation but what he is getting fails the smell test; it stinks. And yet Mr.Murray and others were continuously exposed to an unhealthy environment.It makes those silly energy commission mtgs on ctn not just silly but obscene; shouldn't people be a factor here?

Stephen Landes

Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 1:06 p.m.

People as a factor? That's not possible. For the left-wing "greenies" people are an infection on Mother Earth, so we must focus on caring for the planet rather than caring for each other.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 7:18 p.m.

With all the water around you'd think they may have had an issue with (black) mold too which can be dangerous.


Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 1:53 a.m.

well andy, I think I read in another mlive article years ago that they did indeed say there was also mold. Even so, where there is dampness/water there is mold. All the water has to do is travel down along the outside of a pipe, into a wall and sit there. I imagine there is mold which can be just as deadly. while we hear that "black" mold is the bad mold, all mold can make you sick.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 7:16 p.m.

It's appalling that city workers had to work in an environment like this


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 7:22 p.m.

i was just about to write the same thing. imagine going to work having to dodge buckets on a daily basis.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 7:09 p.m.

Here is a link to some fascinating information on the subject from The National Cancer Institute. <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>


Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 1:25 a.m.

I have read as much as I need. This officer was loved beyond all others and that in itself is wrong. Love should not have this discretion. Still, he was loved as we all should be. It is sad that he is not among us. There will never be proof as to this cause. I only see proof that he was loved. When we are only dealing with odds, proof does not exist. There is a chance of anything. I am glad that we did not give up a chance to love. You can triple your chances of winning any jackpot by buying three chances. You can guarantee your chance of being loved by loving. Vada liked football, but he wasn't a football.