Study finds elevated cancer rates among IBM employees

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(Host) A new study published in a scientific journal concludes that there are elevated cancer rates among IBM employees, including workers at the company’s Vermont plant.

IBM says the research — published in the journal “Environmental Health” is flawed.

The company says that its workers have a lower death rate from cancer than the general population.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The raw data for the health study came from IBM itself. The computer giant collected information on the ages and causes of death of about 32,000 people who worked for the company between 1969 and 2001.

The data was known as the “Corporate Mortality File.” The information was released by IBM as part of a court case filed by workers who sued the company over alleged exposure to toxic chemicals.

Richard Clapp, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, took a close look at the numbers.

(Clapp) “Well, overall cancer seems to be elevated in this group of workers compared to the general population. But it was specific types of cancer that were particularly interesting. There were non-Hodgkins lymphoma, kidney cancer, brain cancer.”

(Dillon) IBM spokesman Jeff Couture said the study was flawed and based on incomplete data. He said Clapp’s findings are contradicted by a study done by Harvard University and the University of Alabama. That research evaluated mortality and the incidence of cancer among 126,000 current and former IBM employees over three decades.

(Couture) “The Alabama Harvard study, which has been published, shows that IBM-ers who worked at the three sites had a lower overall mortality and cancer incidence rate than that of the general population.”

(Dillon) But Clapp, the public health researcher, has a ready response to the IBM criticism.

(Clapp) “Wrong on all counts. Their study was not actually a bigger data set. It was just three plants within the company, where we looked at deaths from the entire IBM, all the plants. So we actually had more deaths in our study than the IBM consultant study published a year ago. And they also found brain cancer to be elevated, particularly at the Burlington IBM Essex Junction Vermont plant, as we did.”

(Dillon) Ralph Montefusco is a former IBM worker who now is a union organizer with the Communications Workers of America. He says the study shows the need to limit exposure to the solvents and other chemicals used in semi-conductor manufacturing.

(Montefusco) “The levels of exposure to workers inside the plant for a lot of these chemicals are much higher – the federal and state limits – are much higher than they are for the general population outside. So we’d like those limits to be reduced inside the plant. We’d also like to see the companies involved, including the chemical companies, the manufacturers, look for non toxic or less toxic alternatives to be used.”

(Dillon) A lawsuit filed by IBM workers, including some from Vermont, was settled out of court. IBM workers lost other court cases that were filed in California.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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