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See Inside March 2008

Solving a Massive Worker Health Puzzle

The largest workplace health study ever conducted is applying cutting-edge techniques to investigating an apparent cancer cluster - and highlighting the reasons why science doesn't always protect us at work



PHOTOGRAPH OF RUBIK'S CUBE BY JAMES PORTO; PHOTOILLUSTRATION BY JEN CHRISTIANSEN; BETTMANN/CORBIS (yellow); JAMES PORTO (blue); UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH (red and orange); CONNECTICUT DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION (green)

In John Shea and John Greco’s day, the cavernous Pratt & Whitney Aircraft plant was filled with an oily mist that sprayed from the grinding machines, coated the ceiling and covered the workers, who came home drenched in pungent machine oil. Degreasing pits, filled with solvent for cleaning the engine parts, dotted the factory floor; workers used squirt cans of solvent to clean their hands and clothes. Shea spent 34 years grinding engine blades and vanes at the million-square-foot facility in North Haven, Conn. In 1999, at age 56, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Six months later Shea’s friend and co-worker Greco learned he had the same disease: glioblastoma multiforme, the most aggressive type of brain tumor. A year after Shea’s diagnosis, both men were dead, but their widows had already begun asking questions about the seemingly unusual number of cases of this deadly form of cancer at one of the world’s top jet-engine manufacturers.

What began in 2001 as an investigation into an apparent cluster of brain cancers at North Haven—13 cases of primary malignant brain tumor among the workers, 11 of them glioblastoma, in just the previous decade—has turned into the largest workplace health study ever conducted. A team led by principal investigator Gary Marsh of the University of Pittsburgh and Nurtan Esmen of the University of Illinois at Chicago is engaged in painstaking detective work to solve a complex puzzle: first the researchers must trace an as yet undisclosed number of brain cancer cases among nearly 250,000 employees at eight Pratt & Whitney plants over a span of 50 years and then determine, if possible, what might have caused the tumors by reconstructing workers’ exposures to a slew of potentially toxic agents. The group expects to publish preliminary findings in the first half of 2008 and final results in 2009.

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