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Rachel’s Environment & Health News
#274 – Chemicals Cause Cancer In Workers And Nearby Residents, 9 More Studies Show

When citizens attend public hearings to learn about a new dump
planned for their neighborhood, they often encounter a hired
consultant with a college degree in science or engineering who
ridicules the idea that chemicals harm humans. Such a person,
wearing an expensive three-piece suit, will stand at the microphone
and look over the top of his spectacles, putting on his best “expert”
look, and say something like, “We know you little ladies are
concerned, and you have a right to be, but if you could just study
the scientific literature, as I have done, you would realize that there
is no evidence of harm to humans from chemical exposures.”
The question to ask such a person is, “Are you merely uninformed or
are you lying?” for in reality there are numerous scientific studies
showing that exposure to chemicals harms humans. Last week we
reviewed 10 such studies. This week we briefly report on nine
The dozen chemicals found most often at toxic waste sites are
trichloroethylene (TCE), lead, chromium, toluene, benzene,
tetrachloroethene, trichloroethane, chloroform, arsenic,
polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), cadmium, and zinc.[1] If you
look at a list of the top 200 chemicals found at hazardous waste
sites, you quickly see that these dozen are representative: a few
metals, and many chlorinated compounds made from petroleum.
Petroleum products and chlorine can be combined in a host of
interesting ways to make “chlorinated hydrocarbons,” which do not
ordinarily occur in nature, which tend to be toxic, which tend to
persist in the environment once they are created, and which enter
food chains and concentrate as they move from small plants to
small animals and then into bigger animals. In general, the bigger
the animal (fish, bird, or mammal), the more chlorinated
hydrocarbons can be found in its flesh.
It seems natural, therefore, to ask ourselves what is known about
health effects from exposure to hydrocarbons (petroleum products)
and especially to chlorinated hydrocarbons.
A study[2] of 8418 white male workers in rubber factories in Akron,
Ohio, revealed an excess of deaths from cancers of the stomach, the
respiratory system, the lymph system (lymphosarcomas), and
leukemias (cancer of the blood-forming cells). In addition, the
researchers found excess deaths from diabetes (a disorder of the
immune system), cerebrovascular disease (stroke), arteriosclerosis
(hardening of the arteries), and suicide.
A study[3] of 1015 male workers at a Canadian oil refinery revealed
an excess of cancers of the brain, bone, skin, kidneys, lymph
system, and blood-forming cells (leukemia), as well as fatal
diseases, including cancer, of the digestive tract.
A study[4] of 2509 active and retired workers at three oil refineries
in Beaumont/Port Arthur, Texas, revealed an excess of brain cancer,
stomach cancer, leukemia, multiple myeloma (cancer of the bone
marrow) and lymphomas.
A study[5] of 1099 white males exposed to tetrachloroethane in the
manufacture of clothing to protect soldiers against mustard gas in
World War II revealed an overall cancer rate 26% higher than
among the general populace of white males of the same ages.
A study[6] of British pathologists revealed an excess of deaths by
suicide, and brain cancers which the authors of the study attributed
to exposure to solvents, or possibly to an infectious agent.
A study[7] of 501 North Carolina men who died of non-Hodgkin’s
lymphoma showed an increased risk associated with occupation in
the rubber, plastics and synthetic chemicals industries.
A study[8] of 184,641 people listed in the New Jersey cancer
registry between 1979 and 1984 found several associations between
specific cancers and specific occupations. For example, in the
printing industry where people are exposed to ink (carbon black and
oil) and to solvents cleaning the presses, white males show an
excess of cancers of the rectum and large intestine, black females
show an excess of breast cancer, and white females show an excess
of lymphomas and of Hodgkin’s disease. White female workers in
the petroleum products industry show an excess of stomach cancers.
The chemical industry produces an excess of mesothelioma (a
cancer of the lining of the chest cavity associated with asbestos
exposure) among white workers of both genders, breast cancer
among black females, prostate cancer among white males,
lymphocytic leukemia among black males, and lymphomas and
Hodgkin’s disease among white females. The rubber and plastic
products industries produce an excess of cervical cancers among
white females, cancers of the urinary bladder among black males,
and liver cancer among white males.
A study[9] by the National Cancer Institute in the mid-1970s
revealed a pattern of excess cancers in white males in 139 U.S.
counties where the chemical industry is clustered. Cancer of the
urinary bladder showed a strong association with exposure to dyes,
dye intermediates, and organic pigments, pharmaceutical
preparations, perfumes, cosmetics and other toilet preparations,
industrial gases, soaps and detergents, paints, glue, gelatin, and
“chemicals not elsewhere classified.” Lung cancer was associated
with the manufacture of industrial gases, pharmaceutical
preparations, soaps and detergents, paints, inorganic pigments, and
synthetic rubber.
Liver cancer was associated with the manufacture of synthetic
rubber, soaps and detergents, cosmetics and other toilet
preparations, and printing ink.
Besides cancers of the bladder, liver and lung, white male residents
of the 139 heavy-chemical counties showed excesses of cancers of
the nasal sinuses, larynx (voice box), skin, and bone. In those
counties, white females showed excesses of cancers of the
nasopharynx (where the nasal passages join the throat), the uterus,
the cervix, and skin.
A study[10] of lung cancer in all U.S. counties revealed a pattern of
excessive cancers associated with four manufacturing industries:
paper, chemicals, petroleum, and transportation (in which workers
are exposed to solvents and paints).
Is there valid evidence that exposure to chemicals can harm
humans? Is the Pope Catholic?
–Peter Montague
[1] Anthony B. Miller and others, ENVIRONMENTAL
WASTES (Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 1991),
pgs. 144-146.
[2] Dragama Andjelkovic and others, “Mortality Experience of a
Cohort of Rubber Workers, 1964-1973,” JOURNAL OF
OCCUPATIONAL MEDICINE Vol. 18 (June, 1976), pgs.
[3]Gilles Theriault and Lise Goulet, “A Mortality Study of Oil
Vol. 21 (May, 1979), pgs. 367-370.
[4]Terry L. Thomas and others, “Mortality Patterns Among Workers
in Three Texas Oil Refineries,” JOURNAL OF OCCUPATIONAL
MEDICINE Vol. 24 (February, 1982), pgs. 135-[141.]141.
[5] James E. Norman, Jr., and others, “The Mortality Experience of
Army World War II Chemical Processing Companies,” JOURNAL
OF OCCUPATIONAL MEDICINE Vol. 23 (December, 1981),
pgs. 818-822.
[6] J.M. Harrington and D. Oakes, “Mortality Study of British
Pathologists 1974-1980,” BRITISH JOURNAL OF INDUSTRIAL
MEDICINE Vol. 41 (1984), pgs. 188-191.
[7] Mary Catherine Schumacher and Elizabeth Delzell, “A Death-
Certificate Case-Control Study of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and
Occupation in Men in North Carolina,” AMERICAN JOURNAL
OF INDUSTRIAL MEDICINE Vol. 13 (1988), pgs. 317-330.
[8] Nancy E.L. Hall and Kenneth D. Rosenman, “Cancer by
Industry: Analysis of a Population-Based Cancer Registry With an
Emphasis on Blue-Collar Workers,” AMERICAN JOURNAL OF
INDUSTRIAL MEDICINE Vol. 19 (1991), pgs. 145-159.
[9] Robert Hoover and Joseph F. Fraumeni, Jr., “Cancer Mortality in
U.S. Counties with Chemical Industries,” ENVIRONMENTAL
RESEARCH Vol. 9 (1975), pgs. 196-207.
[10] William J. Blot and Joseph F. Fraumeni, Jr., “Geographic
Patterns of Lung Cancer: Industrial Correlations,” AMERICAN
JOURNAL OF EPIDEMIOLOGY Vol. 103 (1976), pgs. 539-550.
Descriptor terms: cancer; hydrocarbons; nci; oil industry; petroleum;
rubber; plastics; liver cancer; lung cancer; occupational safety and
Rachel’s Environment & Health News is a publication of the Environmental Research Foundation, P.O. Box 160, New
Brunswick, NJ 08903-0160; Phone: (732) 828-9995; Fax (732) 791-4603; E-mail: erf@rachel.org; http://www.rachel.org.
Unless otherwise indicated, Rachel’s is written by Peter Montague.