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Decade-Long Cancer Study at Pratt Ends

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(Bob Falcetti/Getty Images)

(Bob Falcetti/Getty Images)

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By STEPHEN SINGER
AP Business Writer

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ A massive, 11-year study of brain cancer at jet engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney is coming to an end with what could be definitive information about fatal occupational illnesses at Connecticut plants.

The subsidiary of United Technologies Corp. is set to unveil on Thursday the third and final phase of a university study that already found an incidence of cancer was the same as or less than for the general population. The researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and University of Illinois at Chicago studied work records, cancer registries and other information related to 212,513 employees who worked at one of eight Connecticut plants from 1952 to 2001.

A widow of a worker who died 13 years ago said she’s frustrated at the study’s pace and hopes it’s conclusive, showing that a cancer cluster was the cause of the death of her husband and his co-workers.

“We have hundreds of cases and they can’t figure this out as a cluster?” Carol Shea said. “This isn’t rocket science.”

Her husband, John Shea, died of brain cancer in 2000 at age 56. He worked at Pratt & Whitney’s North Haven plant for 35 years.

The principal researcher, Gary Marsh, said when releasing the second phase in 2010 that the third part of the study is looking at whether workplace factors caused cancer. He said the final stage is “really the definitive step” where researchers can link mortality incidence to exposures to possible workplace hazards and characteristics of the work environment.

Researchers found slightly higher rates of brain cancer at the North Haven plant, but said the difference was not statistically significant and did not appear linked to workplace factors.

Of the workers during the 1952-2001 period who were alive between 1976 and 2004, researchers said they identified 489 cases of malignant central nervous system cancers. Of those, 275 were brain tumors.

The first phase, which was released in September 2008, said it did not find statistically significant excesses in deaths from malignant brain tumors among North Haven workers.

Researchers did not return calls seeking comment and a spokesman for Pratt & Whitney said the company does not have access to the third phase of the study.

The Machinists union and some workers said chemicals used to clean and degrease turbine blades and other engine components filled the air with mists and vapors and mixed with metal dusts from grinders. Workers seldom wore masks, respirators or other protective devices, the union said.

Pratt & Whitney commissioned the $12 million study, which is being overseen by the Connecticut Department of Public Health, in 2002 after complaints from families of workers who died from a form of brain cancer.

Debra Belancik, safety representative of the International Association of Machinists, which represents Pratt & Whitney workers, said she hopes the report ends the matter with conclusive information.

“I have no idea what we’re walking into,” she said. “I hope they come up with some sort of conclusion. We’ve been waiting a long time.”

___

Follow Stephen Singer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SteveSinger10.

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