October 4, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 4Comment

New Solutions: The Drawing Board is a monthly feature produced by the journal New Solutions. Read more about it here.

By Madeline Kangsen Scammell

The following poem was written by Genevieve K. Howe, MPH, a former student and colleague of Professor Richard W. Clapp, DSc, MPH, to honor him upon his retirement from the faculty of the Boston University School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health. Dr. Clapp is a world-renowned cancer epidemiologist. The following poem addresses only one of the countless issues he has worked on.

The poem refers to the struggles of IBM electronics workers and their children to win compensation for health effects or premature death, which they believed were caused by exposures to chemicals used in the manufacture of semi-conductors. The poem also refers to the struggles of Clapp and his colleague, Dr. Rebecca Johnson, to publish an analysis they conducted of IBM’s own “Corporate Mortality File.” The study had originally been scheduled for publication in the journal Clinics in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, owned by the publisher Elsevier. Following IBM’s objections, the journal declined the paper, despite favorable peer review. IBM took legal action to prevent the paper from being published in any venue, resulting in New York Judge Joan Lefkowitz finding that IBM had failed to show good cause for sealing the manuscript and enjoined IBM from interfering in its publication.

The study by Clapp and Johnson was finally published in the peer reviewed journal Environmental Health: A Global Access Science Source in October 2006, and has been since been accessed by tens of thousands of readers. The doctors analyzed the death records of more than 31,000 former employees of IBM who died between 1969 and 2001. Results revealed elevated rates of cancer deaths, with several kinds of cancer showing particularly high rates among workers compared with national averages. Clapp and Johnson conducted the study at the request of lawyers suing IBM on behalf of workers at the company’s disc-drive plant in San Jose, CA. The two workers mentioned in the poem were the test cases for the larger class of 250 workers and their children in the lawsuit. The story of their problems is not unique, as stories of workers in the electronics industry exposed to hazardous chemicals are common throughout the world.

Clapp’s research has been seminal in the struggle for stronger regulations regarding occupational and environmental health. In 2008 the doctor was awarded the Helen Clark Award from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), an advocacy group based in San Jose, CA that promotes environmental justice. The award is named for a Scottish woman who fought high-tech hazards at the semiconductor plant where she worked. She died of cancer in 2004. Clapp has also been a tremendous inspiration to environmental health scientists. In 2008, he received the Research Integrity Award from the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology, a professional society with members in more than 50 countries. The award was established in 2000 to honor researchers who “protect public health above other interests.”

Clapp R. Mortality among employees of a large computer manufacturing company, 1969-2001. Environmental Health: A Global Access Science Source 2006 (posted Oct. 19, 2006).

Richard at the Bat

By Genevieve K. Howe, July 9, 2010

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the plaintiffs in that case;
Two workers versus IBM in a legal face to face.
They were claiming that their cancers had resulted from their work;
That IBM had a responsibility it simply could not shirk.

For plaintiff Alida Hernandez, it was cancer of the breast;
Compensation for lymphoma was Jim Moore’s request.
They were two among two hundred fifty workers and their kids,
Convinced that making electronics had put their lives at risk.

They knew that solvents in their work were what had made them sick,
That Big Blue owed them damages, but would be tough to lick.
Years before these cases reached this long-awaited trial,
IBM revealed it kept a worker “Corporate Mortality File.”

The court allowed inclusion of this massive database;
Over thirty years of records would augment the plaintiffs’ case.
But Big Blue asked to exclude its File and swore it wouldn’t budge.
“I think this data would be helpful. Overruled!” declared the judge.

To review these records on the deaths of more than thirty thousand,
The court then called two experts, Richard Clapp and Rebecca Johnson.
These epidemiologists were clearly quite emphatic:
More cancer deaths resulted–some melanoma, some lymphatic…

Too many workers also died from cancers of the brain;
Cancers of the pancreas and thyroid were to blame.
Cancers of the blood and breast had slain employees in their prime;
And worst of all was: IBM had known this all the time.

Although the doctors Clapp and Johnson had worked with such precision,
The judge refused to admit their study, in his surprise decision.
And thus, Jim Moore and Alida Hernandez never had a crack;
Their lawyer said “I had one hand tied behind my back!”

The case thus lost, Clapp said, “Well then, let’s publish what we found!”
He hired his own attorney. She said, “You stand upon firm ground.”
The prospect of the study’s release to IBM was simply vile;
It could not allow public knowledge of its Corporate Mortality File.

To stop the work of Clapp and Johnson from gaining any traction,
Big Blue issued a letter in which it threatened legal action.
But legal threats were not the only weapons in its arsenal,
Big Blue attacked them further making charges that were personal.

They said that their own data was “inadequate and incomplete.”
They said that Clapp and Johnson’s work could not stand up to any heat.
They even said that Clapp’s research “gives junk science a bad name!”
But Richard, mighty Richard, was hardly finished with this game.

Just then, our hero’s tenacity sparked a national media blitz:
The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and even 60 Minutes.
His story made the news in all the major press of London,
On NPR and in the Lancet and a paper from Down Under.

Clapp’s attorney confirmed he should submit the study again;
Said the BUSPH attorney, “If needed, I’ll step in.”
So what occurred? The publisher refused to print the study!
The one excuse it gave was unsound and simply cruddy.

What happened next reflected Dick’s outstanding reputation;
All the authors withdrew their work from the journal’s publication.
All thirteen writers staged the boycott and signed their names to this decree:
“We will publish when they publish, wherever that may be.”

For two more years, Big Blue pressed on with delays and intimidation,
Until the day a New York Court backed up the study’s publication.
To top it off, the Court injunction barred Big Blue from interference.
At last, the right-to-know was won through steadfast perseverance!

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the truth cannot be told;
Somewhere the public is unknowingly left out in the cold.
Workers exposed to toxics keep on struggling to increase their clout,
But, there is joy for the public’s right-to-know, for mighty Richard has won out!


With thanks to Ernest Lawrence Thayer, author of “Casey at the Bat,” published in The Examiner (San Francisco) June 3, 1888.

4 thoughts on “Occupational health, through metered beats: paying homage to Richard W. Clapp

  1. What a fun way to honor Dick Clapp! (The emphatic/lymphtatic rhyme is especially nice.) I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to work with him through the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, and I’ll just add that in addition to doing tremendous work for environmental health, he’s also a thoughtful and all-around delightful person.

    He’s also written several posts for The Pump Handle over the years – most recently The President’s Cancer Panel report pulls no punches about workplace exposure (also a New Solutions post). You can find links to all his posts at our old site here.

  2. I honored to consider Dick Clapp a colleague, and jealous of the students who learned from one of the greatest!

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