BEREA, KY — When the University of Kentucky published new research in 2008 suggesting that exposure to a common industrial solvent might increase the risk for Parkinson's disease, the moment was a source of satisfaction to Ed Abney, a 53-year-old former tool-and-die worker, reports The New York Times in an article appearing in Sunday's Lexington Herald-Leader.
Abney, now sidelined by Parkinson's, had spent more than two decades up to his elbows in a drum of the solvent, trichloroethylene, while he cleaned metal piping at a now-shuttered Dresser Industries plant here.
The university study had focused on him and his factory co-workers who worked near the same 55-gallon drum of the vaguely sweet-smelling chemical. It found that 27 workers had either the anxiety, tremors, rigidity or other symptoms associated with Parkinson's, or had motor skills that were significantly impaired, compared with a healthy peer group. The study, Abney thought, was the scientific evidence he needed to claim workers' compensation benefits.
He was wrong. The medical researchers would not sign the form attesting that Abney's disease was linked to his work.
Individuals like Abney are caught between the conflicting imperatives of science and law — and there is a huge gap between what researchers are discovering about environmental contaminants and what they can prove about their impact on disease. The gap has ensured that only a tiny fraction of worker's compensation payments are received by those who were exposed to harmful substances at work.
"It's awfully difficult for any doctor or researcher to say to an individual: 'You have this disease because you were exposed at this time,'" said J. Paul Leigh, a professor of public health sciences at the University of California, Davis.
How many people are caught in the same bind as Abney, "nobody really knows," said Rafael Metzger, a California lawyer who specializes in cases involving diseases contracted in the workplace, reports The New York Times.
"Most workers who have an occupational disease don't think they have an occupational disease," Metzger said, adding that "the few who might think it are mostly not successful" in getting compensation "because there isn't a robust body of literature to support the claim."
Abney's wife, Anita Susan Abney, is frustrated by the high standard of proof required. "If you're saying in your study, 'Yes, the dots have been connected,' you should be able to say it in a court of law," Anita Abney said. "You should be able to say it at all levels." She added, "I don't blame it on the doctors, but on the strictness of the research."
Trichloroethylene was nearly ubiquitous in American industry in the latter part of the 20th century. Production grew to 321 million pounds in 1991 from 260,000 pounds in 1981, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The National Toxicology Program has declared that the solvent, also known as TCE, can "reasonably be anticipated" to be a carcinogen. It is a contaminant in drinking water in some areas of the country and is found in more than half the 1,430 priority Superfund sites listed by the EPA. There was no question in Abney's mind what he was working with, reports The New York Times.
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