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From AJR,   March 1994  issue

A Mysterious Cluster of Cancers   


By Kim Barker
Kim Barkerr is a reporter at the Times in Munster,Indiana.      

Jane Heitman still remembers the day in 1981 when the tumor in her head first made itself known. The feature writer was working in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newsroom when everything went bright white.

"The guy next to me said, "What's wrong?' " Heitman recalls. "I said, 'I can't see.' "

The attack lasted 20 minutes, but it wasn't until a second attack two months later that Heitman was diagnosed. It took surgery and nine weeks of radiation treatments to remove the tumor, which was benign.

Heitman, now 60, was the first of nine employees at the paper to apparently be stricken with tumors in the head or brain. Since her treatment, three have died – a copy editor, an assistant city editor and the sports editor.

Theories abound at the paper about what might be causing the tumors, but no one has been able to say if they are the result of coincidence or conditions. Some suspect electromagnetic fields (EMFs) projected by video display terminals, televisions, wiring under the floor and even the cables hooked up to the wire service machines.

"I don't think there's a soul here who was not deeply interested in trying to see if there was some connection" to EMF emissions, says the paper's editor, William Woo. "I sit in front of a VDT too."

Publisher Nick Penniman says there is "no medical evidence that links exposure from video ter- minals to cancer," and studies by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) back him up. For that reason, he says, he was less concerned with the alleged dangers of VDTs as he was with the fact that "employees were upset."

Penniman initially contacted a scientist from nearby Washington University, but the Newspaper Guild objected, insisting on researchers who hadn't been hired by management. The union subsequently asked three NIOSH researchers to study the victims' medical records and test newsroom EMF levels.

Of the nine cases it studied, NIOSH concluded that two involved brain tumors of the same cell type and were possibly related. A third brain tumor might be related, but the victim's medical records had been destroyed. Of the remaining six victims, three had unrelated cancers that spread to their brains from other parts of the body, two had benign tumors near their brains, and one patient had died of an aneu-rysm rather than cancer.

NIOSH medical officer Bruce Bernard notes that finding two brain tumors of the same type at the paper is abnormal, but that there's no way to pin down what might have caused them. Investigators did test EMF levels, he says, but found nothing unusual.

Brain tumors can take 15 or 20 years to develop, and investigators have no way to test what working conditions were like at the paper decades ago. "We're not able to do a lot," Ber-nard says, "and that's what we told them."

The Post-Dispatch is not the only newspaper whose employees have been puzzled by an apparent cluster of cancers. Last November, the Guild asked NIOSH to investigate a Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. building, citing 40 cases of cancer among Inquirer and Daily News advertising employees who share offices there. The agency declined, saying the cancers don't appear to be related.

In 1987, the union at the San Jose Mercury News compiled a list of nine employees who had cancer (it expanded to 18 names after retirees were included and a company-wide survey was taken). But none of the tumors were of the same type except for four cases of sun-related skin cancer, says Senior Vice President John Hammett.

Bill Davis, chief of the San Jose Guild, says that medical officers brought in to evaluate the situation told the paper that the number of tumors was not statistically abnormal and that it would be extremely difficult to determine if a common factor was to blame. "I think the company felt it needed to quell the fear," says Davis, who adds that the union has since had no new complaints.

Post-Dispatch staffers are hoping for the same luck. "It'd be real simple if somebody could establish that so many EMFs cause brain tumors, or something like that," says Herb Goodrick, the local Guild's executive secretary. "But apparently there's no standard we can fall back on."

Joe Pollack, the Post-Dispatch's theater critic and local Guild president, says that everyone in the newsroom is concerned about the cancers but doesn't believe it can happen to them. "We keep our fingers crossed," he says, "and hope we get to retirement age before anything sets in."