Researcher says world is watching results of IBM-Endicott study

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January 13, 2014

Former workers at IBM’s plant in Endicott and their families waited years for a federal government study on the effects of chemicals used for decades at the plant. That study, by NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, came out last week. It found that there were higher rates of certain types of cancer and other diseases among 34,000 workers at the plant compared to the overall population. The study didn’t make a definitive link between working at IBM and cancer. Matt Richmond spoke with Richard Clapp, a former professor of public health at Boston University, who says the study did show that IBM employees in Endicott were right to be concerned.

Matt Richmond: Could explain your familiarity with IBM in Endicott and this study?

Richard Clapp: My first affiliation with IBM was actually a study that was of all the workers at IBM in the whole country and it was part of a lawsuit in San Jose. It was actually on behalf of San Jose IBM workers and that resulted in two publications. One was about the patterns of deaths and especially cancer deaths but other types in IBM workers in the other whole country and then a subsequent publication that looks specifically at IBM and the IBM workers that were in this database that we got as part of the lawsuit.

And then this current study that was done by NIOSH, as sort of a follow-up to the previously published Endicott study that I had done several years ago.

MR: And could you sum up what the NIOSH study found?

RC: Yea, they looked at all the workers who had worked at the IBM plant I believe from 1969 up through 2001 and then they looked at what they had died of up through 2009 and they found that the workers at the Endicott plant had an increased chance of dying of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, statistically significantly increased compared to the U.S. population and also rectal cancer.

And then they found other excesses of various other diseases, including ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, some other types of cancer, including testicular cancer, kidney cancer and at least in the salaried employees, brain cancer were elevated in the Endicott workers. SO it found several things that had been found in previous studies, including non-Hodgkins lymphoma and ALS and an increased trend at least toward an increase in several other types of diseases that had been found in previous studies of IBM workers.

MR: I noticed in some of the press reports that came after this study that there was, sort of the two takeaways, there was one where the overall population of former workers had a lower rates of cancer generally than the general population but then there’s this other takeaway. Could you kind of explain which one is more relevant?

RC: I should first explain why it is that, whenever you look at working populations, you always find a lower rate of deaths from all causes and a lower rate of deaths from cancer than the general population. And that’s because the general population includes people too sick to work. So the death rates are inevitably going to be higher in that population than in working people.

So that’s what they found here – the epidemiological term for that, believe it or not, is called healthy worker effect. And that’s true in all kinds of industries. I’ve seen it in studies of my own that have looked at other workers and even veterans so they found it in the Endicott workers, it’s not a surprise.

The fact that they even, looking at it that way, still found an excess, statistically significant excess of non-Hodgkins lymphoma deaths, means that it probably even higher than that. I mean, what they reported was a roughly 50% excess of that kind of cancer death. And if you look just among workers, it’s probably even a higher excess than that.

So then they did a separate analysis within this study of just the workers, just the Endicott workers, and it includes of course a lot of fewer deaths than if you’re comparing it with the whole U.S. So they did find trends there...

Even in the internal analysis, which is less powerful statistically, they found some interesting things with increasing exposure.

MR: What was it at the plant? Are there particular chemicals that are areas of concern?

RC: Yes, they did describe that in the study, they looked at special categories they called chlorinated solvents and other hydrocarbon solvents and then acids and metals. And it was the chlorinated solvents, that includes perchlorethylene and trichloroethylene.

Those are the two most commonly used chlorinated solvents in this Endicott plant. And in that, they found a trend towards increasing non-Hodgkins lymphoma with increasing perchlorethylene exposure for example.

So they were able to focus in at least on some specific chemicals like chlorinated solvents and then classes or categories of chemicals that were used in the plant. This plant was the original IBM manufacturing plant, so it went back many years and they used lots of different things over the years. But from the records they had available, they could focus in on some specific categories and classes of chemicals.

MR: Are those chemicals still commonly used in plants like this?

RC: Yes they are. Perchlorethylene is a dry-cleaning solvent. It’s used all over the country, including in Endicott by dry cleaners. That’s not a plant necessarily, I mean there are some big dry cleaning operations that are kind of industrial, but it’s also used in smaller dry cleaning operations, sort of mom-and-pop shop type dry cleaning operations right now.

Trichloroethylene, also nicknamed TCE, is still widely used as a degreasing solvent in lots of places, even auto body shops.

MR: Is this the first study of its kinds of the effects of these chemicals or is it already well-known?

RC: Oh no, a lot of the things they were looking at specifically had been seen in specific studies. In fact, that’s why they focused on them. They had seen them either in previous studies of IBM workers, my own and some other ones, or they had been seen in workers that were using these chemicals in other industries.

So I mentioned dry cleaning, the dry cleaning industry has been studied and that’s where non-Hodgkins lymphoma and a couple other types of cancer have already been documented to be increased in the dry cleaning workers. So this study confirms and corroborates some previous finding.

MR: Is there a push to get these things banned or used differently, what is going on there?

RC: Yes, well, you know this Endicott plant was sold in 2001 and I understand that there’s actually very little going on there now and I’m not even sure what the operations there are. But it’s no longer an IBM printed circuit plant like it used to be.

And so for example perc, or perchlorethylene, the dry cleaning solvent, there is an effort, I think in New York state and certainly in other states, Massachusetts and California in particular, to switch from using that chemical to do dry cleaning to other processes that don’t involve toxic chemicals. One way of doing it is called wet-cleaning, which is basically detergent and then steam and that produces just as clean a clothing product as perc does but it doesn’t involve the use of carcinogenic chemicals. So that’s what’s going on at least with that chemical in another industry, dry cleaning.

And then trichloroethylene, TCE, was just declared a known human carcinogen about a year ago. Before that it was called a probable human carcinogen so that means that companies that use TCE are now searching for safer alternatives, just I think if anything to protect their workers and avoid future liability.

MR: It is still used in circuit board manufacturing?

RC: Circuit board manufacturing, I think, has been switching to what are called aqueous solvents, water-based solvents. SO I’m not certain, I couldn’t actually tell you whether the trichloroethylene is still used in printed circuit or circuit board manufacturing, either in this country or overseas. Some of these operations have been moved overseas, especially to Asia. And again, I’m not familiar with the details of how that process works in say China or Indonesia.

MR: Back to the study, what was your impression overall? Do you feel like it was a thorough study and they really got to the, went as far as they could with what they had to work with?

RC: I think this is a very competently done study. I mean it’s sort of standard methods that they used. They had very good team of exposure experts, they call them industrial hygienists in this kind of work that really, they looked at a lot of the company records, they interviewed workers, and they got a pretty accurate picture of at least the broad categories of chemicals that were used at the Endicott plant and when they were used.

And then they looked at the job titles of people who died, and that was from company records, as a federal agency they had access to that kind of thing. So this is a detailed, competently done investigation of the patterns of the death in the Endicott workers.

And some records were no longer available and some records had probably never been kept so there were some limitations which these authors describe in their published article. But I think they did a good job. I think this is a competent look. I mean they found things. This is what the workers who I met you know eight or nine years ago were concerned about and they wanted a study to be done that would look at these things. And they were right. There was a reason to be concerned and this study found it. The congressional, Congressman Hinchey at the time and Senator Clinton at the time were right to push for the federal agency to do the study. And so I’d say it was a positive result.

MR: And then I guess, there’s the possibility of using it in lawsuits. Is this the sort of thing that can be brought to court and might get some sort of restitution from IBM?

RC: I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know how this would be used or if there even is a workers’ lawsuit being contemplated in Endicott but it certainly, it’s in the published literature, it’s a peer-reviewed scientific article so certainly it could be used as evidence in court.

MR: And do you know of any other studies that were able to take this long of a history with this many workers?

RC: There’s a big occupational epidemiology literature. There’s an example called the dioxin workers’ study. It wasn’t as big as this but it included hundreds of workers exposed to dioxin that were making a herbicide that was part of Agent Orange. And that study showed a striking excess actually of a rare cancer called soft tissue sarcoma and it was based on period of work, duration of work and exposure to this toxic chemical dioxin. It was also done by NIOSH, the same federal agency that did the Endicott study.

SO that was published now 20 years ago but it’s definitely been part of the scientific literature that’s been used to justify compensating Agent Orange exposed veterans because of the dioxin causing specific cancers.

So this study, the Endicott study, will I think have a similar fate.

RC: I think this is a study that will be watched worldwide, or it is being watched worldwide. As I mentioned, a lot of these printed circuit and especially semiconductor manufacturing operations have moved overseas. For example right now in Korea is a major effort to get Samsung to use safer chemicals in the semiconductors they’re manufacturing. So there are research scientists in Korea that are very interested in the results of this Endicott study.

And similarly in Europe, in the UK, and in Scotland, there are semiconductor workers who are looking for evidence of the health effects of working with these chemicals that are being seen in Endicott and how those might apply in the UK and elsewhere in the EU.

SO it’s not just a lower-tier New York State issue, it’s a global issue and this study sheds some light out that.