Index Home About Blog
From: (William Penrose)
Newsgroups: sci.chem
Subject: Re: What chemists died of -  was Re: bragging and thank-yous
Date: Sat, 10 Jun 2000 03:07:20 GMT

On Sat, 10 Jun 2000 08:26:51 GMT, (Bruce
Hamilton) wrote:

>A review of the cause of death for 3637 members of the American Chemical
>Society who died 1948-1967 revealed that chemists die at unusually high
>rates from suicide, cancer of the pancreas, and cancers of the lymph
>system (malignant lymphomas) [3].

That's not very surprising, given the standard practices of gonzo
chemistry prior to the 1970's.

You never saw a lab without mercury in the sink.

The fume hood was used to store chemicals.

Everything was pipetted by mouth.

Glassware was dried by spraying with acetone and benzene from a wash
bottle...with bare hands.

Every chem dept had its own unique smell. The odor of diphenylmethane
still makes me think of my alma mater.

I shared a lab with a guy who eventually bought it from acute
pancreatitis. He used to boil off methylating agents on the bench. He
would fly into a rage at the suggestion that he do it in the fume

Bill Penrose

From: (Bruce Hamilton)
Newsgroups: sci.chem
Subject: What chemists died of -  was Re: bragging and thank-yous
Date: Sat, 10 Jun 2000 08:26:51 GMT (SNUMBER6) wrote:
>>From: "Marvin Margoshes" <>
>>"Uncle Al" <> wrote
>>> Folks punching out at 80 swam for decades in mercury, dense fumes, and
>>> probably tasted what they made.
>>A bit exaggerated, Al.
>All in all ... Al's point that there is little evidence of Chemists coming
>down with the wide number of illnesses predicted by the regulatory agencies
>is indeed correct (there are some but they are few ) ... When they are
>presented with the evidence, they seem to shrug their shoulders and say,
>"So ??"

What evidence?. I'll add it to the following, which I put together for
the FAQ a few years ago, when there was some conflict, but never bothered
adding it.

The studies I've seen show that chemists, as a profession, do suffer from
premature mortality because of occupational diseases. The ones that don't
have been more limited employer-based surveys - no self-serving potential
bias there, I'm sure.

A review of death certificates of members of the Royal Institute of
Chemistry who died between 1965-1975, indicated elevated numbers
cancers, especially lymphomas [1].

A subsequent review of deaths between 1965-1989 confirmed the increase in
lymphatic and hematopoietic cancers, in particular leukemias. There was
also increased mortality from some gastrointestinal cancers, cancers of
the duodenum and kidney, some skin cancers, mental disorders, and diseases
of the nervous system [2].

A review of the cause of death for 3637 members of the American Chemical
Society who died 1948-1967 revealed that chemists die at unusually high
rates from suicide, cancer of the pancreas, and cancers of the lymph
system (malignant lymphomas) [3].

The study indicated an increased death rate for working age male chemists
( 444 deaths ), when compared to non-chemist professionals of the same age
( 354 expected ) with approx 50% of excess deaths attributed to pancreatic
cancer. Older chemists ( 65+ ) had unusually high rates of leukemia,
malignant lymphoma, and pancreatic cancer.

Various studies have indicated other trends for chemists, such as
elevated rates of suicide ( I've no idea whether they are more successful
at poisoning themselves, or merely whether they also tried more often ),
and going nutty [4-8].

Other studies, often companies monitoring employees and ex-employees,
have shown no indications of elevated mortality, but the above seem
fairly compelling evidence that, for the periods covered, chemists have
increased rates of mortality for some diseases.

[1]  Epidemiological Study of Mortality of British Chemists
     C.E.Searle et al
     British J. Cancer v.38 p.192-193. (1978)

[2]  Mortality of professional chemists in England and Wales,
     W.J. Hunter, B.A. Henman, D.M. Bartlett, I.P. Le Geyt
     Am J Ind Med v.23 p.615-27 (1993)

[3]  Cancer Mortality Among Chemists
     F.P.Li et al
     J.Nat.Cancer.Inst. v.43 p.1159-1164 (1969)

[4]  A Retrospective Cohort Study of Mortality and Cancer Incidence
     Among Chemists ( in 2 parts ).
     S.K.Hoar and S.Pell
     J.Occup.Med. v.23, p.485-494, p.495-501 (1981)

[5]  Causes of Death Among Female Chemists.
     J.Walrath et al
     Am.J.Public Health. v.75 p.883-885 (1985).

[6]  The cancer mortality among Swedish chemists graduated during three
     decades. A comparison with the general population and with a
     cohort of architects.
     G.R. Olin, A. Ahlbom
     Environ Res. v.22 p.154-61. (1980)

[7]  The hazards of a chemical laboratory environment
     - a study of the mortality in two cohorts of swedish chemists.
     Am.Ind.Hyg.Assoc.J. v.39 p.557-62 (1978)

[8]  Cancer mortality among three Swedish male academic cohorts:
     chemists, architects, and mining engineers/metallurgists.
     G.R. Olin, A. Ahlbom
     Ann.N.Y.Acad.Sci. v.381 p.197-201. (1982)

      Bruce Hamilton

From: (Bruce Hamilton)
Newsgroups: sci.chem
Subject: Re: What chemists died of -  was Re: bragging and thank-yous
Date: Sat, 10 Jun 2000 20:30:29 GMT

"alan" <> wrote:

>Are we all missing the point in a big way?

No. We were discussing the claim that chemists ( in general ) weren't
subject to premature death attributed to occupational hazards. I've
offered several studies indicating that chemists do croak earlier than
expected, including one from ACS data and one from RSC data. So far
no explicit reference countering that data has appeared here.

>In the lab we handle small quantities and we have the the fume hoods
>and so on. And we move on to new stuff as each project is completed.

That is precisely why it is so dangerous. In many cases, people don't
bother retrieving the latest safety data, or take precautions - because
they believe that small quantities aren't hazardous. It's very
enlightening to work with a radioactive compound, clean up all areas,
and then run a detector around. You might be amazed where the compound
has spread to. Because small scale projects are usually small cost,
researchers tend to skip the necessary safety audits that larger, team,
managed projects follow.

I'm currently working with highly cytotoxic compounds that have swab
pass limits of 1ng. They are handled via "double containment" and metal
spill trays in a fume hood, and yet still managed to spread to the front
ledge of the fumehood at concentrations greater than 1ng - probably by
somebody putting gloved hand on the surface.

My lab has the latest editions of Sax, Bretherick, NFPA, and Merck Index
available so we can check if there is published data available on
hazard and risk.

> But a succesful project goes into the factory where some lucky guy
> handles tons of the same stuff year after year. No matter how good
> the safety systems he is going to ingest 1000s x more than the lab guy.

I disagree. In my experience, processes are engineered, and an essential
feature of the engineering are safety and risk studies. Processes are
much more capital intensive and, since the 1970s, safety issues are
incorporated from the start, producing " designed-in safety" facilities.

Production workers may well have lower exposure than lab workers
using unsuitable equipments and practices on one-off samples.

I agree that in the past, production engineering focused on production
cost ( eg the illness and death of production workers in the tetra ethyl
lead factories in the 1920s to 1960s ) and production workers were the
cannon fodder of the chemical industry.

These days, liability issues  ( insurance companies really spit the
dummy if they have to pay for negligence, and they crank up premiums for
companies who have bad accident records ) mean that safety concerns
are paramount in production facility design, and designed-in safety can
minimise exposure. Often such safety isn't obvious, because wearing
chicken suits or other cumbersome PPE is now regarded as unacceptable
for routine use - as wearers tire and make more mistakes. Protection
may be provided by inbuilt segregated environments and remote operation,
so production workers don't have to wear multi-layer PPE.

> Its great to know chemists live forever, but they should try to
> ensure those downstream do too.

Did you actually understand what I posted?. I provided references to
papers that indicate chemists do die prematurely through occupational

         Bruce Hamilton

From: (Bruce Hamilton)
Newsgroups: sci.chem
Subject: Re: What chemists died of -  was Re: bragging and thank-yous
Date: Sun, 11 Jun 2000 08:02:06 GMT (SNUMBER6) wrote:
>>From:  (Bruce Hamilton)
>>Did you actually understand what I posted?. I provided references to
>>papers that indicate chemists do die prematurely through occupational
>I don't want to get into a pissing contest with my esteemed colleague
>...but there are different ways to express the findings ...
>"chemists do die prematurely"  overstates the effect as "certain rare forms of
>cancer are present at somewhat higher rates when chemists are compared to the
>general population ..." understates the effect ... How one phrases a conclusion
>is usually based on their initial opinions ... you, me and anyone else ... Just
>as an industry study is out to prove no effect ... these other studies were
>also begun with a bias in mind to prove an effect ...

Are you sure that the ACS and RSC study authors wanted to "prove an effect"?.
I would have thought that the authors wanted to discover if earlier,
possibly anecdotal, reports on premature mortality of chemists were real,
and their conclusions withstood rigorous scrutiny.

I've just visited Pubmed and searched on chemists and mortality. Of the
13 relevant studies, one retrospective study showed no elevated mortality
rates for chemists, four had no abstract available ( but I have data from
three of those, and they reported elevated mortality ) and the remainder
all reported elevated mortality, with cancers and suicide being the most

The easiest way to avoid a pissing contest is to provide some appropriate
references. Given that you suggested earlier,

 " you quote the few I refer to that show effects and also show
   that the others I refer to as the many also exist..."

I'd like to suggest that my "few" is actually 11 out of 12 from an
extensive current medical database, and your "many" are skillfully
hiding from my gaze. Once again, can I please have explicit references
to more of those many than the one I've found.

You also asked,
 " Do you have access to the asbestos monitoring studies of workers ??
   I recall reading that there were contradicting studies even there
   ... Especially when factoring out smoking ... "

I haven't reviewed the asbestos data for years, but I've not seen any
recent studies suggesting that it is not responsible for occupational
mesothelioma and other diseases. There was, and still is, protracted
debate about the history of the link, but the fibre parameters
( length and diameter ) associated with most of the diseases have been
identified and generally agreed. The known long latency period ( up
to 40 years after exposure ) has resulted in stringent controls for
occupational exposure to asbestos. Virtually all peer-reviewed studies
over the last couple of decates have corrected for known factors, such
as smoking.

A quick review of Pubmed indicates there has been little suggestion
that asbestos fibres are not as harmful as currently perceived by
international OSH lawmakers and regulators. OSH regulators waited
almost twenty years before realising how insidious and devastating
asbestos fibres can be.

I know of no study that suggests that inhalation of asbestos fibres
with dimensions that fall within the specified length/width criteria
is safe. That's not to say that all who are exposed will get the
disease, but that there is a much increased risk of disease if exposed
to the hazard. Some people without parachutes have fallen from planes
and survived, but the odds don't encourage me to try.

            Bruce Hamilton

Index Home About Blog