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Something seemed terribly wrong on the 27th floor of the Vinson & Elkins law firm. Employees kept getting diagnosed with cancer.
In three years, at least nine employees on the floor developed cancer -- about one of 10 workers there -- and many feared something in the workplace, perhaps the air or water, was to blame.
About two years ago, the law firm brought in a slew of specialists to evaluate the building, but what they discovered surprised many staffers: The office was safe. And despite perceptions, employees' cancer rates weren't abnormally high.
''We were just at that age when people start getting breast cancer,'' says Marilyn Roberts, 56, a legal assistant in the Houston office who was diagnosed with the disease. ''It was very comforting to know the company took all the steps to investigate.''
From small law offices to corporate giants such as IBM, companies are facing employee concerns that their workplace is causing cancer. But despite the anxiety and headline-grabbing cases, medical researchers rarely find the workplace to blame. Instead, years of costly research often yield inconclusive findings or winds up proving that the number of cancers were not unusually high at all.
''In occupational settings, by and large, reports about perceived cancer clusters do not end up identifying a definitive cause,'' says Allison Tepper, chief of the hazard evaluation and technical assistance branch of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. ''But cancer is still scary to people. It's a devastating disease to individuals and family, and it's human nature to look for answers.''
A cause and effect is so rare that Tepper says she isn't aware of a case outside of the industrial sector where cancers were caused by the work environment.
But that doesn't stop the concern. NIOSH gets an average of 450 requests a year to investigate whether the work environment is causing health problems such as cancer, and IBM is now fending off lawsuits from nearly 300 current and former employees who believe their cancers developed because of chemicals used in manufacturing jobs.
For lawyers bringing such cases, it can be a struggle to show that workers got cancer from their jobs. For employers facing workers with such concerns, accusations can be devastating -- leaving employees afraid to come to work and companies facing millions of dollars in legal fees and health studies.
For some, the outcomes bring relief, but for others the ambiguity can frustrate employees who suspect that their employers -- who often fund the testing -- are covering up the truth. Some lawyers representing workers say companies don't want to truly research why their employees are getting cancer because they fear what the results may be.
''I can't think of a situation where an employer has been sincerely interested. They don't want to take a look. They wish it would all go away,'' says Amanda Hawes, a lawyer in San Jose, Calif., representing workers with cancer. ''Companies fear that, if they start collecting data, they'll find out they have blood on their hands.''
But many employers say they take these cases seriously. ''We decided that, even if it's uncomfortable, we're going to talk about cancer,'' says Mark Hanson, director of administration for Vinson & Elkins. ''Nothing is hidden. When people are frightened, they can't perform.''
Proving any cause and effect in workplaces such as offices is rare. There is more concern in industrial settings, where employees may be exposed to more chemicals, but cases at industrial firms show how difficult it can be to make firm connections:
* At General Electric, some workers had been concerned that they developed cancer because they worked with PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, before the chemical compounds were banned in the late 1970s. The chemicals, which were widely used in making electrical equipment, were banned because of health and environmental concerns.
But a 1999 study of more than 7,000 employees found that PCB-exposed employees actually had a lower rate of cancer deaths than the national average. A follow-up investigation last year supported the findings.
''There was no increase in a specific cancer, or cancer overall,'' says Renate Kimbrough, a scientist in Washington, D.C., who led the research. ''You may identify a chemical as a carcinogen in rodents, but that doesn't mean the same thing happens in people.''
* In January, the results of an 18-month review of brain tumors among employees at chemical company Rohm and Haas found no significant links between employees' cancers and the workplace. Since 1963, 15 employees at a suburban Philadelphia site developed benign and malignant brain tumors. They include office workers at a research facility, chemists and lab workers.
''There was no association with workplace chemicals,'' says spokesman Syd Havely. ''Among employees, there was a sense of relief.''
* After more than a dozen employees at an Amoco research center in Naperville, Ill., developed brain cancer, researchers found no connection to the workplace. A follow-up three-year investigation was completed in 1999. While an excess of brain tumors was found in scientists in one building, investigators determined it was possible -- but not provable -- that something in the workplace was to blame. They were unable to determine what caused the excess.
The company, which has since merged with BP, has faced lawsuits involving seven employees, and those cases have been settled.
There are myriad reasons cancer remains such a bedeviling mystery. In many cases, the number of cancers may seem high, but a closer investigation reveals it's a mirage and there is no statistical elevation. And even if a higher number is found, the workplace isn't necessarily the culprit. A host of off-the-job exposures, lifestyle issues, such as smoking or obesity, and genetics play a role in the development of cancer. That can make it almost impossible to pinpoint the job site as the cause.
The labor force is also aging, with more people working past 65. That means workplaces are seeing more instances of cancer. More than 17 million new cancer cases have been diagnosed since 1990, and more than 60% of cancers diagnosed in this country are among people over 65. As cancer shows up more in the workplace, it's likely that cancer cluster concerns will increase, too.
''It used to be that the philosophy was, 'It's God's will.' Now, there's got to be a reason,'' says Michael Fumento, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., who has researched environmental health issues. ''People want an answer. They're very uncomfortable with the laws of probability.''
It's also common for health concerns to turn out to be false alarms. The debut of computers in the workplace touched off a flurry of debate, study and fear. In 1980, a cluster of birth defects was found at the Toronto Star. That spurred government research, and today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says most studies have not shown a relationship between the use of video terminals and birth defects or miscarriages.
But the concern is not imaginary: Some cancers and other health problems have been traced to occupational exposures. A lung cancer is related to asbestos. Mineworkers exposed to uranium have developed lung cancer. Workers exposed to flavorings used in foods have developed severe lung damage. Benzene is linked to leukemia. Vinyl chloride is linked to liver cancer. And less than 2% of chemicals that are commercially used have been tested to see if they cause cancer, NIOSH says.
Lawyers representing IBM workers say their cases aren't false alarms, and legal experts say a verdict against IBM could unleash a string of other lawsuits against similar high-tech companies where the same, or similar, chemicals were used.
IBM declined to comment on any of the lawsuits or on the issue of dealing with employee concerns about health risks. However, officials have denied in the past that any of the workers' health problems were linked to their jobs.
William DeProspo of Goshen, N.Y., represents more than 250 current and former workers who are suing IBM. The lawsuits allege that the company knew that chemicals workers came into contact with were dangerous. His clients include current and former workers, family members of employees who died, and children of those who worked at IBM.
According to the various lawsuits, children were born with such defects as spina bifida and no kneecaps, and employees have suffered a variety of cancers, including lymph node cancer, blood cancer, breast cancer and pancreatic cancer.
The former New York City homicide prosecutor has devoted seven years to the IBM lawsuit. Even so, he acknowledges that such cases can be tough to win.
''There are a lot of challenges,'' DeProspo says. ''We have a host of scientists saying these chemicals cause cancer, and the other side will have the same quantity of experts who will say you can get cancer from crossing the road. But this isn't junk science. I think it's very, very believable.''
Keith Barrack, 40, of Beacon, N.Y., one of DeProspo's clients who has filed a lawsuit, says he believes there's a link. The former IBM employee lost his left testicle to cancer in 1995, but the malignancy spread to his lymph nodes. He had 54 nodes removed.
''There's no cancer in the family, I don't do drugs, I don't smoke,'' says Barrack, who now runs a construction business and has a 2-year-old daughter. ''When I worked at IBM, I complained of headaches and nausea. There were fumes, a smell. I'm so angry at the company. Every time I look at the 20-inch scar on my stomach, I think about it.''
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