Safety on the job: an ounce of prevention..
BY MORRIS EDELSON
Morris Edelson: In your position as district health director for the Oilfield,
Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW),
are you aware of the Houston area, industrial plants which are implicated in environmental insult? I mean, pouring filth
out into the environment. Have you seen
certain plants in this area which are harmful to the general public?
Dr. Sharon Itaya: Well most of my experience with hazards of both pollution and
toxic wastes comes from my particular
experience with the South Houston workforce—the hazards they face on the job,
which translate back to the community.
Whatever our people are being exposed
to on the job is spewing out all over the
community. Yes, I think there really is
a big threat to Houston, particularly to
areas near the Ship Channel, from all the
chemical and refining plants that exist
there. The diseases caused are chronic,
slow devoloping, largely incurable and
expensive to treat.
There was an EPA study recently that
indicated that the Gulf Coast area is
starting to catch up and even exceed
New Jersey as a big cancer center. They
felt that the large amount of petrochemical pollution in the air has caused this increased danger.
ME: Do refineries produce carcinogenic
SI: Yes. In fact, they are getting worse.
The refineries in the past used to process
crude oil by a process called thermocrack-
ing, which was not as efficient as the new
catalytic cracking. On the other hand, the
old method did not produce as many
aromatics which by and large are carcinogens.
Refineries appear to be much safer
now than they were 40 years ago. In
terms of explosions they probably are
safer. On the other hand, in terms of cancer, heart disease and long-term health
problems, they're probably much worse.
For example, we discovered among our
work force that there does seem to be an
increase in cancer and heart disease.
ME: Sharon, how do you check the
workers? They have certain subjective
impressions of their health, right? Do you
examine them, or does the union
examine them? Do you have objective information to check against their apprehensions?
SI: Right now we're just beginning to
undertake the study of heart disease
among our work force. In general, the
best source of information is the workers
themselves. The workers have been keeping track of their co-workers over the
years. It was workers keeping records of
themselves which led us to believe that
there is an increase in cancer and heart
Just yesterday I was at the local at
Broadway and 610 near the ship channel.
I was talking with some Crown Petroleum
workers and a group of retirees. We
went over a seniority list, and they were
able to pick out the people who had
heart disease. In some departments 75
percent of the people had heart disease.
In others, there were 45 percent with
heart disease. Both figures are much higher than we think acceptable in the general
population. I'm going to keep trying to
refine this type of information. But the
best information comes from the workers
In fact, it was one of the workers
who found that Amoco workers have a
very shortened life span. He discovered
this by taking the company-supplied magazine for the last few years, which lists
all the deaths of workers and their ages
at death. He merely averaged the figures
and noticed that chemical workers were
dying around age 55, whereas the average
age of death for executives was 78. Also,
one of the men at Texaco in Port Arthur
noted that 45 percent of the workers
in the painting unit had hypertension.
ME: What about the general public?
Are the workers like the canaries they
used to carry into the mines? Do workers
show the effects of the refineries before
the environment does?
SI: It's not so much that the environment gets it later. The environment gets
it in a lower concentration from many
ME: What are some of the dangerous
things in the air and water here?
SI: Well, an EPA study looked at Houston, Baton Rouge and sites in New Jersey, looking specifically at carcinogens.
The EPA never used to measure carcinogens—they measured irritants, like nitrous oxides, sulfur oxides, particulate
matter, and they measured ozone, hydrocarbons. The things we're talking about
are things like aromatic hydrocarbons,
things like benzene which causes leukemia. They looked at five known carcinogens and more suspected carcinogens.
ME: Is Houston now in the cancer big
leagues with New Jersey?
SI: I believe so. Texas takes pride in
booming and being number one in everything. It's soon going to be first in another area. It's the whole Gulf Coast area,
where the petrochemical and petroleum
industries are. Even conservative people
like Guy Newell, who now heads the M.
D. Anderson cancer branch, has said
the petrochemical industry contributes
to a higher intake of patients there.
ME: The Medical-Industrial Complex...
what is its position on the dangers to
SI: The medical community has never
been concerned with preventive measures.
Their focus is always on disease—therapy
and disease, treatment and disease,
surgery for disease. But the whole Public
Health focus is prevention of disease.
They look at the whole problem of occupational medicine, where you might be
able to prevent incurable, horrible, irreversible kinds of disease. The medical
community has never focused on occupational medicine or environmental problems.
ME: Why is that?
SI: It goes back to the whole process of
how medicine is run. I think it's a result
of the way medicine has been channeled
over many generations. Of course there's
always the money angle.
The most that's been done in cancer prevention, for instance, is anti-