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National study finds elevated rates of cancer and neurological disease amongst IBM Endicott workers

Matt Richmond
Wanda Hudak at home in Endicott with the former IBM campus in the background.

Like many in Endicott, Wanda Hudak has a long history with IBM.

There’s a clear view of the company’s campus, now the Huron campus, from the garden in her backyard. She’s lived in Endicott her whole life, and worked at IBM as a nurse during the 1970s before becoming the town’s representative on the county legislature.

“I’m a real hard-nose 'I love Endicott' girl, ok?" Hudak said. "My dad worked in the Endicott-Johnson factory. My mom was a wonderful seamstress, made a good living doing that. I went to school at Union-Endicott.”

Hudak is president of the Western Broome Environmental Stakeholders Coalition, the group that began lobbying years ago for a study of disease rates among former workers. She has spent much of her life confronting injuries and diseases at the plant.

“As a nurse, when you tell me that you found non-Hodgkins lymphoma, I see the woman that walked into my first aid and asked me to check the lump under her arm," Hudak said. "She’s dead now. When you tell me cancer, I think of my neighbor.”

While the study, conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety Health, did not make a direct link between the IBM plant and the deaths of former workers, it did find elevated rates of certain cancers and neurological diseases. Hudak wasn’t surprised by those findings.

She says now she’s just disappointed in IBM for refusing to take responsibility, and make things right in Endicott.

“It kills me every time I go back," Hudak explained. "And I think you know in the Watson days, you could walk past here, over that bridge, McKinley Avenue bridge, and I used to walk with pride. I was an IBM industrial nurse. And I loved it.”

The study looked at the health records of 34,494 workers who were employed at the plant between 1969 and 2001. An IBM spokesman declined to be interviewed about the study’s findings.

Researchers did find a lower percentage of cancer deaths among workers at the Endicott plant than in the overall population. That’s not surprising, says Richard Clapp, a retired Boston University epidemiologist.

“And that’s because the general population includes people too sick to work," Clapp said. "So the death rates are inevitably going to be higher in that population than in working people.”

It’s what’s known as the healthy worker effect. Clapp says it’s worth noting that the study still found increased rates of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, rectal cancer and certain neurological diseases. Two of the chemicals used at the plant, known as TCE and PCE, have long been a source of concern among Endicott residents.

Clapp says the study is being watched worldwide in places where these chemicals are still used.

“A lot of these printed circuit and especially semiconductor manufacturing operations have moved overseas," Clapp said. "For example, right now in Korea is a major effort to get Samsung to use safer chemicals in the semiconductors they’re manufacturing.”

At his coffee shop across North Street from Building 18, Mark Bacon is watching too. He is one of the many Endicott residents who has had to install a venting system in his basement. A spill of PCE and TCE underneath Building 18, and the spread of fumes into basements, is what first caused widespread concerns about the chemicals used at the plant.

“This is ground zero of the spill,” Bacon said.

Bacon’s building stands all alone. All his neighbors were bought out, the buildings torn down and replaced with parking lots. But the previous owner refused to sell when IBM first came around. And IBM’s successor, Endicott Interconnect, offered him much less. Now he’s stuck.

“I would have been out of here day one," Bacon said. "Where would you go? Anywhere but on a contaminated site. Nobody wants to live on a contaminated site, unless you’re forced to.”

Bacon’s part of a lawsuit against IBM. He says he’s gotten a letter from his lawyer once a year, for twelve years now, telling him to be patient.

IBM officials are expected at Thursday’s meeting in Endicott, where NIOSH will present its findings.

Matt Richmond comes to Binghamton's WSKG, a WRVO partner station in the Innovation Trail consortium, from South Sudan, where he worked as a stringer for Bloomberg, and freelanced for Radio France International, Voice of America, and German Press Agency dpa. He has worked with KQED in Los Angeles, Cape Times in Cape Town, South Africa, and served in the Peace Corps in Cameroon. Matt's masters in journalism is from the Annenberg School for Communication at USC.