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Despite Hype, Pratt Study Shows Cancer Increase

by Carole Bass | Jun 4, 2010 4:28 pm

(17) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Business/ Economic Development, Health

Pratt & Whitney Aircraft got its message out today, burying evidence of higher cancer rates at a local factory.

“No cancer link found at P&W,” blared the front page of Friday’s New Haven Register.

“Study: Pratt & Whitney Workers Got Brain Cancer At Same Rate As Overall Population,” trumpeted the Hartford Courant. “Study Shows No Cluster At North Haven Plant.”

The headlines echoed Pratt & Whitney’s official statement about the most recent results of a massive brain cancer study, released June 3. “We are reassured,” said the statement from the the giant, East Hartford-based jet engine maker, “that the study does not show an increased rate of brain cancer among our Connecticut employees.”

Reassuring, yes. But not entirely true.

In fact, Phase 2 of the $12 million, eight-years-and-counting study found slightly elevated rates of a deadly brain tumor among people who worked at Pratt’s North Haven plant—where a rash of death ignited concerns a decade ago. Thousands of workers made jet engines in that plant for decades before it closed in 2002.

The gap gets bigger when you compare P&W employees who worked only in North Haven with those who were never assigned there. The biggest increase was among salaried employees in North Haven.

Those two comparisons didn’t make the headlines.

Most, but not all, of the increases were too small to be “statistically significant”—meaning scientists think they likely occurred by chance. But all are important enough to investigate further, say the scientists who are conducting the study.

It was Pratt’s North Haven plant where workers and their families first raised the alarm about a possible brain cancer cluster a decade ago. Just six months apart in 1999, two machinists, John Shea and John Greco—friends who worked next to each other—were diagnosed with a rare and fatal brain cancer called glioblastoma.Their wives, soon to become their widows, started compiling information about other P&W employees with brain cancer.

By 2001, the widows and some union activists had involved the state Department of Public Health. With attention mounting, Pratt & Whitney agreed to hire Gary Marsh, a biostatistician at at the University of Pittsburgh, to investigate.

Marsh and his team examined data on more than 212,000 people who worked at eight of Pratt’s Connecticut facilities between 1976 and 2002. In 2008 they announced their Phase 1 findings: 489 of those employees had brain cancer; glioblastoma, the most aggressive form, accounted for 275 of the cases.

Those numbers are big, but so is Pratt & Whitney, which used to be Connecticut’s largest private employer. The brain cancer rates did not exceed the state’s overall average.

In Phase 2, Marsh and his team took a closer look at types of brain cancer and subgroups of P&W employees. Again, the overall rate of glioblastoma caused no concern. But some of the finer-grained analysis yielded possible problems:

  * North Haven employees had 8 percent more glioblastoma than the Connecticut average.
  * P&W employees who worked only in North Haven had 40 percent more glioblastoma than those who never worked at that plant.
  * The rate among North Haven’s salaried employees was double the state average.

Which Numbers Count?

Pratt workers had less glioblastoma than the general Connecticut population. The company on Thursday and the newspapers on Friday emphasized the comparisons between Pratt workers and the general population.

But that might not be the most relevant comparison. Epidemiologists warn of a “healthy worker effect.” As a group, people who work—in any occupation—are healthier than the general population, which includes people who are too sick to work. That can make it misleading to compare disease rates.

According to Marsh, only the twofold increase among salaried employees is big enough to be considered statistically significant. A two-fold increase doesn’t necessarily mean the cancers were work-related; it just raises suspicion.

“The increases we’re seeing are very small,” Marsh said Thursday night at a public meeting, where he presented the Phase 2 findings. (They’ll be published will be published online in the journal Neuroepidemiology on June 7.) “But you don’t pooh-pooh them.”

Marsh’s co-investigator, Nurtan Esmen of the University of Illinois at Chicago, wasn’t so quick to dismiss the 40 percent glioblastoma gap between Pratt’s “North Haven only” and “never North Haven” workers.

“I don’t think we’re ready to make a judgment,” he said, explaining that an overall cancer rate that’s normal or near-normal can mask significant increases among small subgroups.

The study’s third phase will dig deeper into those subgroups. Esmen’s team is painstakingly reconstructing work conditions—who made what parts, using what processes and what toxic chemicals and metals. Phase 3, which is supposed to be finished early next year, will match that reconstruction with data about individual brain cancer victims, looking for patterns and possible causes.

One of those possible causes, Esmen said, is the “blue haze” of the now-closed North Haven plant. Created by metal-working fluids, coolants that (usually) kept the high-speed grinding machines from catching fire, the haze always hung in the air, those who worked there say.

The cancer victims’ families are hoping that the study’s third and final phase will penetrate that haze and—at long last—provide some answers.

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posted by: anon on June 4, 2010  4:47pm

An overwhelming proportion of our elementary school children in the New Haven school district (and many in other surrounding towns) are overweight, come from families with dire food insecurity, and/or have early onset diabetes, meaning they will likely lose 20-30 years of life compared to an average American… and we are investing exactly how much money worrying about a few (most likely statistically insignificant) cases of brain cancer?

posted by: Threefifths on June 4, 2010  6:55pm

You have seen nothing yet. Wait to the workers at the B.P. oil spill ten year from now start coming down with Illness for handling that oil

posted by: iamjh on June 6, 2010  3:50pm

“ANON” is actually complaining that the workers and the union forced the employer to study a vicious cancer cluster that could continue to kill, if the same materials & chemicals are used?  And somehow this is a statement of concern for kids—as if Pratt would be working on childhood diabetes if not for this “selfish” cancer study?
Man, that’s a sad, warped perspective.  Kids deserve good health, & so do workers.  It should not be an either/or.
The article, by the way, is the best I’ve seen on the ongoing issue.  Most of the media simply repeated Pratt’s “no problem here” refrain.  Good work, Carole.

posted by: anon on June 6, 2010  5:38pm

iamjh, glad you agree it isn’t an either/or. So perhaps then you know exactly how much Pratt, its suburban unions, and our state and local governments have spent on investigating these brain cancers since 2001, versus how much they have spent since 2001 towards improving the health of tens of thousands of our state’s children in New Haven, West Haven, Bridgeport, Meriden and other towns in the area, many of whose life expectancies are now estimated to be 20-30 years shorter than the wealthy suburban kids in Woodbridge? 

It’s great to see the company investigating a potential (still unconfirmed, perhaps impossible to confirm) problem with its industrial processes, but it also just another good demonstration of how our public resources are not distributed in an equitable way.  It shows that our society caters to wealthier residents and their interests, instead of addressing severe health problems (e.g., the fact kids get no exercise and live off of sugar water) that dwarf them in severity and will cause life-long damage to our entire society, including trillions of dollars in health care costs and millions of premature deaths. 

Our corporate and government elite often dismiss the latter as impossible to solve, even though the changes needed to solve them are extremely clear. They get away with it because these problems largely impact children and lower-income, minority populations.

Have you ever looked at how much our government spends per year on each elderly and suburban middle-aged resident, versus how much it spends per year on each child? 

Should we just sit back and continue to accept that tens of millions of dollars worth of public resources are being spent on court fees and legal costs, while the powers that be continue to conveniently ignore the fact that our children are literally dying right in front of our eyes?

[Editor’s note: No government money is going toward this study. It is being paid for by Pratt & Whitney. I’m curious where anon got this figure of “tens of millions of dollars worth of public resources.” We’re unaware of any such public expenditure.]

posted by: iamjh on June 6, 2010  6:27pm

ANON—read the article.  Pratt spent $12 million.  The Union devoted time to pushing to get the study but did not pay for the research.  No government funds were spent on this.
We should absolutely spend more on children’s health, and addressing poverty.  But not by trading off the health of workers.  It’s the same corporate power denying resources to both groups.  In the case of the Pratt workers, getting the study was a victory, and not at the expense of other working or poor people.
Save your ire for the truly powerful, not workers fighting for their lives.  And if you ever worked in a factory, you’d know what a fight it’s been to make them at least minimally safe.
Unfortunately, part of the reason poverty has risen in our state is that Pratt & Whitney has exported thousands of jobs to countries where workers cannot fight for better conditions.

posted by: Bill on June 7, 2010  7:34am

Clustering is a well know statistical phenomenon which appears to be abnormal to the average person.

posted by: Jonathan Knisely on June 7, 2010  7:54am

This article correctly points out that the critical part of this research is yet to come, when the epidemiologists delve into the occupational exposures of Pratt & Whitney employees and correlate their exposures to the observed rates of development of malignant brain tumors. 

It is unlikely that there would be a link between having Pratt & Whitney stamped on your paystub and developing glioblastoma multiforme.  Pratt & Whitney is a large corporation, and its employees have very different workplace exposures. 

I have always been impressed by Pratt & Whitney’s funding of this research effort.  It has been good corporate citizenship.  I hope that the findings from phase III’s analysis can help protect workers in Connecticut and elsewhere.

When will phase III be completed?  Presumably all the data’s been collected and entered into computer databases to facilitate this analysis.

posted by: Bruce on June 7, 2010  8:57am

Thanks for putting this into perspective.  I read the NHR article and I was confused by the apparent discrepancy between the results and the conclusion.

posted by: robn on June 7, 2010  9:02am

According to this study, 0.23% of P+W workers got brain cancer. This is twice as high as the 2004-2005 percentage of Americans with brain cancer. http://www.abta.org/siteFiles/pdflibrary/ABTA Facts and Statistics 2009.pdf
So that alone is compelling, but when you factor in that the North haven workers had twice the rates of all other P+W workers, its pretty fishy.

My vague recollection from previous stories on this subject is that there were open solvent baths used for parts cleansing and workers would regularly stick their hands in those baths and get the stuff all over them.

posted by: anon on June 7, 2010  1:02pm

It’s easy to claim that no government or union funds go toward this, until you look at the oversight and indirect costs. 

And by public resources, I include Pratt - the only way to solve these issues is to consider the fact that all of society’s resources are shared social goods (public), even if not equitably contolled.

posted by: robn on June 7, 2010  1:17pm

ANON,

P+W is held by United Technologies which is a publically traded, but privately owned company. They paid for this study.

posted by: anon on June 7, 2010  6:58pm

Robn: good for them. There is only a finite amount of money, and lawyers/govt officials/judges time, on this planet. Who controls it is not the issue.  We all share it and are impacted by the effects of its allocation.

posted by: Callie on June 8, 2010  10:04am

The pay codes are different, but in reality, the North Haven Pratt and Whitney workers went from hourly to salary. They worked there way up the ladder. They worked next to machining and process operations,They came from the floor. Many of them sat in bull pens next to or near processes and machinies that spewed coolant and near degreasing tanks. The IAM worked very hard on this study and there are many people involved with it. Many years and hours are going into it,

posted by: robn on June 9, 2010  8:36am

ANON,

We all share the money? I wish it were so.

posted by: Elena on June 9, 2010  11:32am

How does one get in contact with attorney Mark Schaffner of New London?
  I am getting my life put in danger here in NC by wildlife and the police will do nothing about it, though it’s caused by neighbors deliberately putting out salt blocks & feed for deer.

I want to get my story out too, in case our cars get hit by a deer!

  Of course, the P&W crowd is hiding this under a rug, it will cost them billions in lawsuit, if the truth gets out.

Same here, they got lyme disease but no one wants to admit it. But still they automatically insist it’s ok to lure wild animals to your yard, even if you in city limits!
  Crazy huh?
  Funny how people of affluence don’t seem to mind putting others’ lives at risk, with guilt whatsoever.
  Glad I was born with a conscience, but think about it, P&W was all about aircraft with is a very safety-oriented field!
  They ought to ashamed of themselves for doing what they did to their long-time workers.

posted by: callie on June 9, 2010  12:39pm

Your deer problem should be dealt with by the DEP and wildlife preserve,
I too have a clear conscience, I can sleep at night, Workplaces should be held accountible for the employees safety, health and environmental conditions, if something is wrong, they should address it,

posted by: callie on June 10, 2010  10:37am

Thanks iamjh,
The union worked very hard to start the study, It was a very long process and still is, The victims family are a big asset to the study, They were also in helping to start the study,  This study is a big plus for safety and health in workplaqces. We need to do more to protect workers in all jobs and in all ages whether they are union or not, we all bleed the same way,
Thank you for your support,

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