Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Chemical exposure at work may be linked to health problems: IBM study

Massive study tracked thousands of
IBM workers and their health.
While former workers at IBM in Endicott show lower mortality rates than the general population, exposure to certain chemicals could be related to health problems, according to a recent government statistical analysis.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health announced the findings of a massive, five-year study of the health of 34,494 workers who were employed at IBM’s Endicott facility between 1969 and 2001.

Among the study’s key findings:
  • The total number of deaths from all causes, and the total number of deaths from cancer, were lower among the former workers than what would be expected from the general population. Just over 17 percent of the sampled workers — a total of 5,966 — had died through 2009. 
  • Deaths from specific types of cancer including non-Hodgkin lymphoma, mesothelioma, pleural cancer, rectal cancer and testicular cancer were more frequent in some groups than would be expected from the general population. 
  • “A positive, statistically significant relation” was observed between exposure to tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, and nervous system diseases. Exposure scores for trichloroethylene, or TCE, were positively statistically correlated with a certain type of leukemia.

Like most statistical studies related to the health of a group, the data do not show that exposure caused any disease found in that group.

Rather, the statistics can show only stronger relationships or correlation in one group compared to what might be found in the population as a whole.

“We’re definitely not in a position to say anything is causal,” NIOSH research epidemiologist Sharon Silver said.

TCE, an industrial solvent, was used at the IBM facility beginning in the mid-1960s as part of the printed circuit board manufacturing process and discontinued by 1985.

Although few potential ties between exposure and health outcomes were observed in the local group of IBM workers studied, the report concludes that “risks from occupational exposures cannot be ruled out due to data limitations and the relative youth of the cohort.”

The study has been long-anticipated by Endicott residents, who pushed for it for years before $3.1 million in federal funding was appropriated for the effort.

Limitations with the data

Yet the authors of the report are the first to admit that constraints in the available data mean nothing conclusive can be said about the effects of exposure to chemicals at IBM.

“There are a number of limitations with the data,” said Silver, the lead author. “We don’t have measurements on who was exposed to what, when.”

Researchers began working on the study in spring 2009, using electronic IBM human resources records to reconstruct work histories of employees and conduct an in-depth analysis of industrial hygiene records showing where chemicals were used.

But the study could not take into account possible chemical exposures at other jobs, and lifestyle factors like smoking. And the workers in the sample are relatively young, meaning some potential adverse health effects may have not yet developed.

IBM spokesman Todd Martin said the study’s finding that IBM workers had a lower mortality rate than the general population was among the key points. He emphasized that the findings regarding PCE and TCE represented a statistical correlation, not an proven causal relationship.

“Health, safety and wellness of IBM employees is, and has always been, the top priority for IBM, and it is integrated into every aspect of our operations,” he said.

NIOSH, the federal agency that conducts research and makes recommendations for preventing work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths, conducted the study at the request of the state Department of Health and other stakeholders.

This article has been edited for length. 
Source: Press Connects

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