Study shows solvents damaged rail workers' brains

(The following article by James Bruggers was posted on the Courier-Journal website on September 5.)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Researchers studying railroad workers have documented that cleaning solvents used in their jobs caused brain damage, shrinking the vital bridge that helps one side of the brain communicate with the other.

The results of the study by researchers from West Virginia University, the University of Pittsburgh and Johns Hopkins University, which was funded by the federal government, bolster evidence that powerful degreasers can damage the brain.

They also lend further credence to claims by hundreds of railroad workers, many from Kentucky and some from Indiana, diagnosed with brain damage after cleaning locomotives with solvents from the 1950s through the early 1990s.

"We were able to identify a change to the structure of the brain," said lead author Marc Haut, a professor in the departments of behavioral medicine and psychiatry, neurology and radiology at the West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown.

The researchers sought funding for the study after numerous railroad workers with the same symptoms began showing up in the researchers' clinics, Haut said.

"Those railroad workers with more exposure or severe exposure had a greater loss of (brain) volume," Haut said.

He said they found a correlation between brain loss and workers' performance on tests that evaluate such mental performance as processing speed, attention and concentration.

The new report is the first connected with the nation's first large, independently funded study that seeks to explain how railroad workers may have been affected by solvents like 1,1,1-trichloroethane, trichloroethylene and perchlorethylene. Workers who participated in the study came from railroad shops in Cumberland, Md., and Huntington, W.Va.

"It is no surprise to me," Deanna Bowerman said of the study's findings.

Her late husband, Dale, was a CSX railroad machinist in Louisville and Corbin, Ky., and was diagnosed with toxic encephalopathy -- characterized by chronic depression, loss of short-term memory and hair-trigger temper.

Although Dale Bowerman was not part of the West Virginia study, Deanna Bowerman, of Harrison County, Ind., said doctors told the couple years ago that her husband had suffered permanent brain damage.
Effect of solvents

In a 10-month investigation in 2000 and 2001, The Courier-Journal learned that Bowerman and more than 600 other U.S. railroad employees had been diagnosed with toxic encephalopathy after spending years in workplaces where solvents were widely used with little or no protection.

The newspaper found that the debate within the medical community about whether exposure to solvents in the workplace caused brain damage had diminished in the 1990s.

But studies of railroad workers were less common, and some that were funded by CSX Transportation had found no link between solvent exposure and the illness. The newspaper found that CSX, the railroad company with the largest number of claims, had paid out nearly $35 million to more than 460 current or former workers diagnosed with the illness.

Railroads began phasing the chemicals out of their shops in the early 1990s.

CSX has both won and lost jury verdicts in chemical exposure cases that have gone to trial. It has argued that its workers' problems could be explained by other factors, such as drinking alcohol, side effects from prescribed medication, or illnesses such as depression or diabetes.

Gary Sease, a spokesman for CSX, said the company continues to believe there is no credible and conclusive scientific basis to support claims that solvent exposure harmed company workers.

Joe Satterley, a Louisville attorney who represents railroad workers, said he's aware of at least 100 pending lawsuits in Kentucky and elsewhere that were filed in the last few years.

The study, he said, "substantiates everything we've been saying all along."

Brain images compared

The findings of eight researchers were published in June in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. They are based on comparing images of the brains of 31 railroad workers who were exposed to solvents over a period of at least 10 years to 31 people who were not.

Any workers involved in pending litigation with the railroad were excluded, as were those with current substance abuse, a history of serious medical illness, or a diagnosis of mental illness before solvent exposure, Haut said. The researchers also factored out potential effects from high blood pressure and diabetes, which can cause the brain to shrink.

With funding from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the researchers found that the size of the corpus callosum -- a bridge between the left and right hemispheres of the brain that allows communication between the sides -- was significantly smaller in the railroad workers.

And the part most affected, they found, was the genu, a section of the corpus callosum that connects the frontal lobes, which are associated with decision making, problem solving and emotions.

The researchers also concluded that psychiatric conditions, such as depression, could not have caused the physical changes in workers' brains.

As another part of the study, the researchers are analyzing images that compare brain function while participants take certain mental tests.

Haut said the research will help professionals better understand the medical problems of people in other industries exposed to solvents.

Dr. Alan Ducatman, a co-author of the study and chair of the department of community medicine at West Virginia University's medical school, has diagnosed more than 100 railroad workers with the illness. He said there are also implications for anyone who is a heavy drinker of alcohol, which is also considered a solvent.

"For all of the intoxicants, the problem ... is knowing the threshold before safety is breached," he said.

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

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