Mon, Jun 21, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Scientists launch boycott after IBM suppression

CENSORSHIP The computer giant is accused of persuading a scientific journal to block an academic investigation of high rates of cancer among its employees

THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Scientists have voted to boycott an international journal after its owners blocked publication of a paper claiming large numbers of IBM workers have died prematurely of cancers and other diseases.

The development is unprecedented and has triggered a battle between the computer company and researchers. IBM says the paper is flawed but denies putting pressure on the publishing group Elsevier to stop the paper's publication.

Dr. Joe LaDou of the University of California at San Francisco, who tried to publish the paper, said the study was an important work that reveals the serious health risks facing workers in the computing industry. He has bitterly attacked the decision to block the paper and has been backed by all other contributors to Clinics in Occupational and Environmental Medicine. They have demanded that all their papers for that issue be withdrawn until the publisher relents.

"By standing together we can bring attention to the heavy-handed tactics that industry employs to prevent the publication of important scientific discovery," LaDou said.

The health problems of workers in the semiconductor industry, whose labors spawned the computer revolution and the industrial rebirth of the US in the 1970s and 1980s, have become a major headache for computer hardware companies in recent years. Hundreds of former employees are suing silicon-chip makers and computer manufacturers over the diseases they have suffered after working with acids and solvents in fabrication plants. IBM is now facing litigation from more than 250 former employees.

Cases include Nancy LaCroix, who worked at IBM's Essex Junction plant in Vermont, where, she claims, she was surrounded by chemical fumes. She gave birth five years ago to a daughter who has severe bone defects, including encephalocele, a condition in which a portion of the brain sticks out through her skull.

Another worker, Heather Curtis, worked with chemicals at IBM while she was pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Candice, with microcephaly, a severe brain abnormality. Suzanne Rubio developed cancer that spread through her body and died aged 36 in 1991. Her lawyers blame her death on the "witch's brew" of chemicals she had to work with.

The company strongly denies these workers contracted their health problems through factors related to their work. In a workforce as large as IBM's, many workers will, by simple chance, contract unusual diseases, officials have insisted.

Last year, hearings for two cases -- Alida Hernandez, 73, a cancer victim; and James Moore, 62, who suffers from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of lymph tissue -- began in Santa Clara County, California. Their lawyers asked for access to IBM's employee mortality records. These requests were initially refused by the company but following a court order, the records were handed over. IBM maintains they contain no helpful data.

But distinguished epidemiologist Richard Clapp of Boston University and his colleague Rebecca Johnson were asked to examine the records. Their analysis showed IBM employees suffered significantly more deaths from several kinds of cancer than would be expected from the general population. This trend was particularly strong for workers at IBM's chip-manufacturing plants, the current issue of Nature reveals.

"We found that cases of brain and kidney cancers and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma were more than double that found in the population at large," Dr Clapp said.

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