June 16, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

In 1999, two machinists who worked next to each other at a Pratt & Whitney jet engine plant in North Haven, Connecticut were diagnosed with glioblastoma, a rare and fatal brain cancer. Their wives started compliling information about other employees at the same company who’d received similar diagnoses, and focused attention on the workers’ illneses until Pratt & Whitney agreed to hire University of Pittsburgh biostatistician Gary Marsh to conduct a study. Carole Bass reports for the New Haven Independent on the findings, the second phase of which have just been released:

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.

P&W has proclaimed that the study has found no cancer link, but researchers aren’t done yet. The third phase will look for patterns and possible causes using data on the conditions in which different employees worked.

Bass is an investigative journalist with extensive experience covering occupational health issues (links to some of her past stories are here), and she actually wrote an in-depth article about this research for Scientific American back in 2008. It’s well worth a read for anyone interested in learning more about the complexities of occupational epidemiology.

In other news:

NPR: An investigation by NPR and Pro Publica reporters found that the military still isn’t diagnosing many cases of traumatic brain injury in soldiers; many soldiers eventually get TBI diagnoses from outside doctors, after having gone without appropriate treatment.

MedPage: A study funded by the Australian Research Council and presented at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies found that loss of sleep and sleep displacement can result in impaired glucose tolerance – a finding that has implications for shift workers.

New York Times: The Senate Armed Services Committee has passed an amendment (sponsored by Senator Roland Burris) to a Pentagon policy bill that would allow women serving in war zones to obtain privately financed abortions at military hospitals and bases.

Washington Post: With China’s supply of labor no longer seeming endless, workers have become less willing to put up with sweatshop-like conditions. Strikes and partial factory shutdowns are becoming more common, and Chinese media is giving them more coverage.

The Sydney Morning Herald: A mechanic who was diagnosed with mesothelioma after having worked with asbestos brake linings has won his suit against the manufacturer, James Hardie.

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