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IBM, Ex-employees Go To Court Over 'Cancer Cluster'

Suzanne Rubio had spent five years assembling and inspecting disks at an IBM factory when doctors told her she had brain cancer. She continued working while undergoing treatment for two years, not taking a medical leave until April 1990.

Rubio died the next year. She was 33.

Rubio's relatives and several former IBM employees who developed rare cancers at relatively young ages have a hearing in a San Jose courtroom Friday to determine whether a lawsuit they filed against the technology giant in 1998 finally can go forward.

The plaintiffs allege that Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM knowingly exposed workers to cancer-causing chemicals in its semiconductor factories and lied to them about the health risks. Their lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.

IBM contends the case has no merit and is seeking a dismissal.

A jury could begin hearing the allegations against Big Blue and its chemical suppliers next month if Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Robert Baines allows the case to proceed. It would be the first lawsuit to go to trial out of more than 200 filed against IBM by workers in Silicon Valley, New York and Minnesota.

The case has the attention of the semiconductor industry, thousands of Americans who have worked in chip plants and scientists who have long debated the existence of "disease clusters." Some insist exposure to toxins leads to group outbreaks, an idea others reject as "junk science."

Movies such as "Erin Brockovich" and "A Civil Action" have helped turn a debate among epidemiologists and statisticians into a heated public health issue. Because of the threat of negative publicity and heart-wrenching anecdotes, many companies settle out of court, sometimes for hundreds of millions of dollars.

IBM settled a lawsuit in 2001 by two former employees who alleged that exposure to chemicals caused birth defects in their son. But it has refused to settle the San Jose case. As a result, hundreds of court documents detailing human misery and allegations of corporate secrecy have been made public.

According to court files, hundreds of IBM workers were struck with relatively rare forms of cancer in their 30s, 40s and 50s. They often contracted lymph, blood, breast and brain cancers, as well as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, leukemia and the very rare multiple myeloma.

The lawsuit could hinge on a 'corporate mortality file' IBM used to document the deaths of 30,000 employees from 1969 to 2000.

IBM says the file helped provide death benefits for surviving spouses and contains little more than death certificates.

'There is no way with any kind of technical or scientific validity you can look at a list like that and keen from it a cluster,' said IBM spokesman Bill O'Leary. 'If these people got cancer, was it because they were in the clean room or because they were in a group with a higher incidence of smoking?'

But Dr. Richard Clapp, a Boston University epidemiologist who analyzed the file for plaintiffs, said it showed a "significantly elevated" number of cancer deaths among young workers. He added that IBM could have detected the trend as early as 1975 in men, 1985 in women.

IBM workers were allegedly exposed to trichloroethylene, cadmium, toluene, benzene and arsenic. But some experts say it's almost impossible to connect exposure to outbreaks, and that coincidences that look like cancer clusters could show up in almost any group.

Complicating factors - whether the group contained smokers, or whether members were genetically predisposed to cancer - blur causality, according to Dr. Alan Bender, a leading skeptic of claims that the disease can be traced to a single cause.

Bender, section chief of chronic disease and environmental epidemiology at the Minnesota Department of Health, called Clapp's analysis "a quintessential example that statistics don't mean a damn thing."

"I can go into any church, neighborhood or work force, and I can poll them and you can find a cancer cluster," said Bender, who has no affiliation with IBM. "Rarity has nothing to do with causality."

Copyright © 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.

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