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#273 - To Understand Whether Chemicals Are Dangerous, Ask What Chemists Die Of, 18-Feb-1992

It has become fashionable to claim that modern synthetic chemicals pose
little or no harm to humans. We hear it from learned scholars like Dr.
Bruce Ames at Berkeley,[1] and from others less-well-known. Their
message is consistent: they say naturally-occurring chemicals, such as
peanut butter, are more dangerous to humans than are the billions of
tons of toxic chemicals being discharged into the environment each year
by Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, Union Carbide and their competitors in the
chemical industry.

The arguments are highly technical and obscure. Does damage to a
laboratory mouse from a high dose mean there's danger to a human from a
low dose? Should chemicals be evaluated one-at-a-time, or the way
people actually encounter them, which is in combination? The average
person has trouble understanding such debates.

However, there does seem to be one question we can ask that will help
us understand whether chemicals pose a hazard to humans: we can ask,
what do chemists die of?

In 1969 a study[2] of the causes of death among 3637 members of the
American Chemical Society (ACS) who died 1948-1967 revealed that
chemists die at unusually high rates from cancer of the pancreas, and
cancers of the lymph system (malignant lymphomas). This study also
provided the first evidence that chemists tend to commit suicide.
Female chemists (of which there were only 115 out of the 3637 ACS
members studied) had an elevated risk of breast cancer. The study
revealed an excessive number of deaths among young male chemists (aged
20 to 64) compared to non-chemist professionals of the same age (444
deaths observed, 354 expected) and 41 of the 90 excess deaths were from
pancreatic cancer. Chemists older than 65 had unusually high rates of
malignant lymphoma and pancreatic cancer but also leukemias (cancers of
the blood-forming cells).

A series of reports in the 1970s confirmed that Swedish chemists die
from malignant lymphomas and blood-related cancers, but also from brain
tumors.[3] A brief report also revealed that British chemists tend to
suffer from elevated levels of malignant lymphomas.[4] This British
study, of death certificates of 1332 members of the Royal Institute of
Chemistry who died during 1965-1975 inclusive, revealed a higher-than
expected proportion of cancers, with an excess of lymphomas

An interesting sidelight of these studies was the revelation that
chemists tend to commit suicide at rates that exceed the national
average. A study[5] of 347 white female members of ACS who died between
1925 and 1979 revealed increases in cancer of the breast, ovary,
stomach, pancreas and lymphatic and hematopoietic [blood-forming]
system. Suicide was 5 times as prevalent among female chemists as among
all U.S. white females.

A study[6] of 3686 male chemists who worked for DuPont and who died
during the period 1964-1977 revealed excessive risk of cancer of the
colon (large intestine), skin (melanoma) and prostate. The overall
cancer rate for these chemists was below the U.S. average for white
males, as you would expect because chemists are generally well-off, and
sick people generally aren't employed--a phenomenon known as the
"healthy worker effect," and the reason workers are almost always found
to have fewer ailments than the general public. Notably, the 75 female
chemists at DuPont had greater-than-expected mortality for all causes
combined and for suicide.

Subsequent study[7] of these same DuPont workers showed a slight
increase in disability claims for mental disorders (neuroses,
depression, and alcoholism), compared to non-chemists; it is perhaps
noteworthy that chemists in DuPont's chemical research-and-development
department had a three-fold increase in disability claims for mental
disorders. This study also revealed an excessive suicide rate among
chemists no longer actively employed by DuPont.

A study[8] of employees of a large pharmaceutical company [826 white
production employees and 249 white male sales staff] who died between
1954 and 1976 revealed an increase in the occurrence of several kinds
of cancer (lung, skin [melanoma] and brain among males, and leukemia,
breast and large intestine among females) among production workers as
well as a statistically increased rate of suicide in both male and
female production workers.

Why do chemists commit suicide more than other people? No one knows.
Perhaps it is merely because they have easy access to deadly chemicals
and take advantage of that fact. Perhaps contact with chemicals tends
to degrade their mental stability. Perhaps it is because they get more
cancer than people in other occupations and, being particularly well-
educated, they know what the future holds for someone diagnosed with

Whatever the reason, there seems to be little doubt that chemists tend
to commit suicide, and to get cancer, more than other professionals,
and more than the general public.

A recent study[9] of Exxon employees reveals an increased risk of
leukemia and lymphatic cancers among scientists, engineers and research
technicians, compared to Exxon managerial employees who had the least
potential for chemical exposure in the workplace.

A study[10] of 644 male employees who worked for at least one month
during the period 1942-1979 in a Swedish chemical factory found a
statistically significant increase in malignant lymphoma and
myelomatosis (multiple myeloma) and a smaller increase in bronchial

A study[11] of 8171 Dow Chemical employees found a healthy worker
effect but also found significant increases in cancers (unspecified)
among plant mechanics, machinists, machine repairmen, welders, and
organic chemical production personnel.

There seems to be little doubt that working with chemicals creates a
risk of cancer, even among those people who are well-educated, who
presumably have a healthy respect for the hazards of their workplace,
and whose employers are wealthy companies that can afford to take every
precaution against excessive exposure.

--Peter Montague


[1] Bruce Ames and others, "Ranking Possible Carcinogenic Hazards,"
SCIENCE Vol. 236 (April 17, 1987), pgs. 236-271.

[2] Frederick P. Li and others, "Cancer Mortality Among Chemists,"

[3] G. Robert Olin, "The hazards of a chemical laboratory environment--
a study of the mortality in two cohorts of Swedish chemists." AMERICAN
562. And: G. Robert Olin and Anders Ahlbom, "The Cancer Mortality among
Swedish Chemists Graduated During Three decades," ENVIRONMENTAL
RESEARCH Vol. 22 (1980), pgs. 154-161.

[4] C.E. Searle and others, "Epidemiological Study of the Mortality of
British Chemists," BRITISH JOURNAL OF CANCER Vol. 38 (1978), pgs. 192-
193 [an abstract].

[5] Judy Walrath and others, "Causes of Death Among Female Chemists,"
AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH (August 1985), pgs. 883-885.

[6] Shelia K. Hoar and Sidney Pell, "A Retrospective Cohort Study of
Mortality and Cancer Incidence Among Chemists." JOURNAL OF OCCUPATIONAL
MEDICINE Vol. 23 (July 1981), pgs. [485-494.]485-494.

[7] Shelia K. Hoar and Sidney Pell, "A Retrospective Cohort Study of
Disability Among Chemists," JOURNAL OF OCCUPATIONAL MEDICINE Vol. 23
(July 1981), pgs. 495-501.

[8] Terry L. Thomas and Pierre Decoufle, "Mortality Among Workers
Employed in the Pharmaceutical Industry: A Preliminary Investigation,"
JOURNAL OF OCCUPATIONAL MEDICINE Vol. 21 (September 1979), pgs. 619-

[9] Bengt B. Arnetz, "Mortality among Petrochemical Science and
Engineering Employees," ARCHIVES OF ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH Vol. 46
(July/Aug. 1991), pgs. 237-248.

[10] Lars Hagmar and others, "Mortality and cancer morbidity among
workers in a chemical factory," SCANDINAVIAN JOURNAL OF WORK,
ENVIRONMENT AND HEALTH Vol. 12 (1986), pgs. 545-[551.]551.

[11] M. Gerald Ott and others, "Determinants of Mortality in an
Industrial Population," JOURNAL OF OCCUPATIONAL MEDICINE Vol. 18 (March
1976), pgs. 171-177.

Descriptor terms: chemists; american chemical society; chemists death;
lymphoma; pancreatic cancer; cancer; suicide; dow chemical;
carcinogens; occupational safety and health;