Making a cancer cluster disappear

Making a cancer cluster disappear

After a record number of brain tumors at a chemical plant, industry launched a flawed study that obscured the extent of the problem

By David Heath

5:00 am, February 10, 2016 Updated: 11:25 am, February 10, 2016

The largest cluster of workplace-related brain tumors happened at this vinyl chloride plant now owned by Dow Chemical in Texas City, Texas. While government studies blamed chemicals at the plant for the tumors, industry studies have tended to exonerate any chemicals as the cause.

John Everett for the Center for Public Integrity

TEXAS CITY, Texas — It began with a headache; then came shaking of the hands. Leuvell Malone’s wife noticed unusual behavior. He struggled to button his shirt straight and crashed the car into the hot-water heater in the garage. Finally, a seizure landed the 55-year-old chemical worker in the hospital.

His doctor at first thought Malone might have suffered a stroke. But it turned out to be worse than that. The father of four had a rare and deadly brain tumor.

During his 32 years of greasing machines at the sprawling Union Carbide plant south of Houston, Malone feared the chemicals he breathed might one day make him sick, his sons recall. So he reported his illness to the local office of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

That was in November 1978. Just a few days later, Bobby Hinson, one of Malone’s co-workers, died of the same rare tumor, known as glioblastoma. He was 49 years old. OSHA inspectors went to the plant to find out how many other workers there had died of brain cancer.

To their surprise, the plant’s medical director already had compiled a list of 10 names. “To walk in the front door without tracing through the population and come up with 10 brain cancers is just startling,” an OSHA investigator, Dr. Victor Alexander, told a local reporter. Malone would die just three months after he was diagnosed.

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