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Swift With Tortoises

Photo by Issa Sharp

David Morafka, a renowned expert on endangered desert tortoises, died last week at 58 of pancreatic cancer that he blamed on toxic exposures at the Cal State Dominguez Hills campus. Morafka rebounded from crippling ailments to resume his career, but never fully overcame his afflictions. His mysterious maladies, and those of students and his colleagues, were portrayed in a Weekly cover story in 1995.

The athletic professor, who swam four times a week and jogged four and a half miles a day, noticed in 1990 a rapid physical decline marked by pervasive fatigue. Also, his fingers swelled and throbbed; his hands turned red; 15 minutes in the sun would burn rashes into his skin. He could sleep only two or three hours at a time and would wake drenched with sweat. A wave of headaches, like a nonstop hangover, blurred his vision with searing pain that left him almost immobile. He sometimes forgot where he was or what he was doing.

His colleagues and students reported similar symptoms. Morafka suspected his college science lab was part of a so-called sick building, and that the likely culprit was the school’s acclaimed orthotics-and-prosthesis program, which makes artificial limbs and braces, using a toxic stew of chemicals. The lab, in the building’s basement, operated near a ventilation system that experts judged to be poorly designed and maintained. Even a casual visitor could be overpowered by the smell of plastics in the dim underground lab, which looked almost ghoulish, with shelf after shelf of disembodied plastic limbs.

For several years, school officials denied any problem, failed to conduct regular tests of the air, and scoffed at or blamed the sick — implying that mass hysteria was causing psychosomatic symptoms in people who weren’t really sick. But that theory didn’t account for why Morafka’s captive baby tortoises developed deformities and then died. Nor did it explain why pregnant laboratory mice aborted whenever the plastics lab started up.

“I devoted a lot of my life to building up the university,” said Morafka at the time. “And I thought that the university had some integrity. But I see this bureaucracy is not different from any other grotesque bureaucracy. Administrators chose to risk my life in order to save a few dollars,” and, he added, to shield themselves from liability and accountability. Morafka led a group that sued the university in 1994. A judge threw out most of the cases, including Morafka’s, because treatment costs for his workplace injury fell under jurisdiction of the workers’-comp system. A student and two children, who were not university employees, later settled out of court, said Morafka’s wife Sylvia. The prosthetics lab moved to a new, aboveground, well-ventilated building.

The university denied wrongdoing, and the illnesses’ cause was never conclusively verified; experts note that such cases are almost impossible to prove. A federal investigation, apparently still ongoing, began years after the events.

Morafka partially rebounded to what he had been, a sort of middle-aged Indiana Jones, who would snag poisonous snakes in the field, holding them so they couldn’t bite, while determining species and gender. An acclaimed herpetologist, Morafka determined, for example, that young tortoises need to eat the fresh droppings of adult tortoises to maintain strong growth and health. As he explained to Senator Dianne Feinstein, during her visit to his outdoor desert lab, “The more shit you take from your parents, the better off you are.”

“Dave could get away with saying stuff like that,” said Bob Murphy, a University of Toronto professor and a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum. He described Morafka as “brilliant and hilarious,” even as a precocious teenager and Berkeley grad. And as a mentor, Morafka “gave away ideas to students so their own careers could go forward, and he would take no credit for it.” He also was a registered minister who selectively performed weddings, “all of which succeeded,” said Murphy, “including mine.”

A celebration of Morafka’s life is scheduled for February’s Desert Tortoise Council annual meeting in Las Vegas. Morafka was so well-liked that those who want to attend include workers at the cleaners and at the pet store he patronized.

The popular scientist never overcame a persisting hypersensitivity to chemicals. His wife recalls one time when his hands started bleeding spontaneously after he touched the vinyl wrapping of a new car’s steering wheel. One of his doctors warned that he could look forward to an elevated risk for autoimmune diseases. In December 2001, he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and last year lab tests confirmed the pancreatic cancer. Cancer had already claimed the life of a colleague, 57-year-old Bob Trim, the researcher who’d reported the problems with the mice. Trim and his family also blamed his fatal illness on toxic exposure.

“Dave went into academics as a young man to change the world,” said Sylvia Morafka, “to make a difference, to be the best professor and help other people. You don’t expect your job to be your enemy.”