Cancer rates elevated among space-lab workers

By Michael Collins

LA Weekly – April 21, 1999


The other gooey shoe dropped last week in Simi Valley. UCLA’s School of Public Health released its long-term study of Rocketdyne employees exposed to a soup of toxic chemicals while working on the company’s giant rocket test-stands.

The results were grim: Increased rates of cancer were found, especially among workers who handled hydrazine, a high-octane gel used as a rocket-engine propellant. Two million pounds of hydrazine were used at Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Lab (SSFL) in the hills between the Simi and San Fernando valleys during the ’50s and ’60s. Smaller quantities are currently used at the site.

UCLA found that Rocketdyne workers who had high hydrazine exposures were about twice as likely as other Rocketdyne employees who worked at the site to die from lung and other cancers. The study shows that 44 in 1,053 workers on “the Hill,” who had concentrated contact with the compound, had died from lung cancer. That rate was twice as high as for the employees who had minor or no contact with the chemical, which has been found to be carcinogenic in lab animals and a “possible carcinogen” to humans.

Excessive deaths from cancers of the kidney, bladder, blood and lymphatic system were also observed, although the lung-cancer numbers were the most startling. The jeopardy of dying from one of these cancers was also highest among those who worked in the high-exposure positions during the 1960s, when Rocketdyne’s use of hydrazine was at its peak. But considering the various amounts of different types of toxic slop used on the test-stands, UCLA couldn’t determine absolutely that hydrazine was the cancer culprit.

“While we believe that something is going on with this group of workers, we don’t know for certain what caused the excessive cancer deaths,” said Beate Ritz, a UCLA epidemiologist and co-investigator on the study. “Our best information is that it was hydrazine, but it could be something else related to rocket-engine testing. We do know there is an excessive number of cancer deaths among workers in the high-exposure category.”

Researchers grouped 6,107 men, by job title, into categories of suspected hydrazine exposure. High-exposure employees included propulsion mechanics and technicians who were responsible for pumping the goo into test-stand rockets and fuel tanks — operations that allegedly resulted in frequent leaks.

For 50 years, Rocketdyne was in the forefront of America’s effort to win the Cold War, and the Santa Susana lab was its battlefield. On a 2,668-acre expanse littered with boulders and blanketed by chaparral lay a sprawling, semi-secret complex of concrete bunkers, rocket test pads and experimental nuclear reactors. The lab was used to supply our expanding arsenal of MX rockets designed to carry nukes and rocket engines for the space race. The Simi Valley facility has a well-documented history of problems, including a partial meltdown of a reactor core in 1959 and widespread radioactive and chemical contamination. Community concerns about the pollution in 1989 prompted local officials to establish an independent oversight panel charged with organizing an investigation of the health of Rocketdyne’s workers.

The six-year chemical study is the companion report to a UCLA radiation study released in September 1997. That report found that, while the overall cancer death rates at Rocketdyne are lower than that of the U.S. population as a whole (due to the “healthy worker” effect, which says that people who have jobs are generally healthier than those who do not), exposure to radiation at Rocketdyne creates health risks, at ionizing levels much lower than previously believed.

“Government standards for worker-radiation limits allow the equivalent of 500 chest X-rays a year,” said Dan Hirsch of the anti-nuclear Committee to Bridge the Gap. Hirsch is co-chair of the study’s oversight panel, appointed by the Environmental Protection Agency to provide input from scientific, community, government and union representatives. “Now we finally find out that it was not just the radiation workers who were in harm’s way,” Hirsch said.

Prodded by the landmark results of the chemical report, the research team is angling for more information. “Since fewer than one-quarter of the workers in our study died by the end of the follow-up period, we need to continue following these workers in the future,” posited Hal Morgenstern, a UCLAprofessor of epidemiology and the principal investigator for the study. “It would also be helpful to expand these future efforts to examine new cases of diagnosed cancers, rather than only examining cancer deaths.”

Rocketdyne officials reacted to the UCLA study with all the warmth of Jerry Falwell greeting Tinky Winky. Steve Lafflam, the company’s top flack for safety, health and environmental affairs, dismissed the report as inadequate and flawed. Rocketdyne criticized the UCLA team for analyzing just two chemicals (the second was asbestos), not conferring with the company, not adequately taking smoking into account, and for using job titles as the only basis for estimating the workers’ probability of exposure.

The Rocketdyne critique was based on an analysis by nine “peer reviewers,” hired by the company for a total of more than $100,000, according to Lafflam. The consulting scientists defended themselves as “independent” and claimed that “critical peer reviews are universally regarded by scientists worldwide as the single most important component of the process used to maintain the integrity of the body of knowledge that is science.”

Based on the results of the critical review, Lafflam said, “Rocketdyne cannot accept the study’s findings as meaningful or conclusive. The overall conclusions are misleading and generally not supported.” Lafflam should be concerned about the critical reviews — several civil lawsuits have been filed against the company seeking to recover damages for exposure to the lab operations. As Lafflam previously asserted, “There are special-interest groups that have put out a rash of lies. They’ve gone forward with litigation that’s going to cost a lot of people a lot of money. And there’s no merit to it at all.”

UCLA’s research team angrily countered that their science was sound. Outside the Rocketdyne presentation, Morgenstern, the study’s principal investigator, expressed outrage over the company’s attempt to discredit his study. Conferring with his colleagues, he asserted that in its focus on smoking and job categories, Rocketdyne was attempting to blow minor issues completely out of proportion.

In fact, the UCLA team said the biggest flaw in their study derived from Rocketdyne’s refusal to share its internal data. “I remember spending many frustrating months in the first years of our study, where we got together all the time at public meetings to create the ultimate search of everyone we could,” said Morgenstern. “We were told, ‘Sorry but that’s it. We’re giving you everything we have.'” John Froines, co–principal investigator and a UCLA professor of toxicology, was even more blunt: “The frustrations we felt in those earlier days [was because] essentially we were told there is no way to do this.”

Indeed, Rocketdyne now says it has new information related to chemical exposure at the plant, and is planning to do its own study based on this exclusive material. The plan quickly drew criticism. “It’s rather devious of Rocketdyne to withhold information from the UCLA researchers and then claim the results of the study are flawed because of the data,” said Joseph Lyou from the Committee to Bridge the Gap. Rocketdyne’s motivation to control a health study was greeted with skepticism by members of the oversight panel, as noted by City College of New York professor and panel co-chair H. Jack Geiger. “Any study of the chicken coop by the foxes will have some significant barriers to overcome, even if the chickens are cooperating.”

Aside from hydrazine, UCLA’s chemical report focused on the impact of asbestos in the workplace, but made no significant findings. Although asbestos exposure is widely believed to be linked to lung cancer, the UCLA researchers did not find excess lung cancers among Rocketdyne workers exposed to the chemical. The finding, however, was complicated by the fact that the team didn’t have adequate data to do a proper analysis.

Federal rules have required since 1972 that firms keep data on worker exposure to asbestos. However, Kim O’Rourke, deputy safety engineer at Rocketdyne, said that the company has records only from the mid-’80s forward on asbestos. When pressed for the location of records from 1972 into the next decade, O’Rourke seemed shaken. “I don’t know,” she admitted.

In addition, the UCLA team berated company officials at the chemical-study meeting for withholding information critical to the study. For six years, the researchers have pressed the owners of Rocketdyne — first Rockwell, then Boeing — to churn out the true stats regarding its workers, but to no avail.

The critical report on Rocketdyne comes at a time when state officials are also coming under fire for their handling of inquiries into health risks stemming from the Santa Susana lab.

Last week it was revealed that the state Department of Health Services had suppressed since October 1997 findings showing that the 19 census tracts nearest the field laboratory had a spike of lung cancers 17 percent higher than expected. The document came to light when representatives of the Committee to Bridge the Gap reviewed Rocketdyne records at the Oakland offices of the DHS, which has been characterized by oversight panel co-chairman Hirsch as a “captured agency.” During the review, Lyou, the environmental organization’s director, found a summary of the field cancer study — a study that was never made available to the UCLA team or other officials involved in the Rocketdyne case.

Community health concerns, in the aftermath of the UCLA chemical study, were not assuaged by documents Lyou found last week through a Public Records Act request submitted in January. In addition to the survey, Lyou said he located Internal DHS notes from November 1997 that show a cozy relationship between the department and the company.

“DHS should be ashamed of [its] behavior,” said Lyou. “Rather than working to accommodate Rocketdyne, DHS should step aside and allow a truly independent oversight panel to look into whether this company has caused cancers in the community.”

In 1990, DHS also failed to disclose a San Fernando Valley cancer survey that revealed elevated bladder cancers among those living closest to SSFL.

Discovery of the department’s latest obfuscation incensed Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl. “I am stunned and very angry that DHS would choose to sit on information like this after what happened in 1991. Whether or not these cancer cases are connected to the Santa Susana site, this survey should have been immediately given to the oversight panel [and] the UCLA researchers, and disclosed to the public.”

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