SAN JOSE, Calif. Cancer in two former IBM hard disk drive employees was not caused by chemical exposure on the job, an occupational health expert testified Thursday (Jan. 29) at the chemical exposure trial here.
In addition, IBM doctors took adequate steps to investigate and communicate to the workers the nature of their illnesses, said M. Donald Whorton, vice president of WorkCare (Alameda, Calif.), a medical consulting firm.
Whorton's testimony on behalf of IBM Corp. contradicts other medical experts who testified for the plaintiffs. The two ex-IBM workers allege exposure to toxic chemicals on the job led to illnesses and eventually to cancer, and that IBM mangers withheld information about the conditions allowing them to worsen.
Whorton supported IBM's claims that the illnesses of Alida Hernandez and James Moore were caused by factors outside the workplace.
Whorton said IBM's measurements of exposure levels of acetone, xylene and isopropyl alcohol ranged from less than 1 percent to 30 percent of threshold limits generally accepted by occupational therapists. "These exposure levels are very low, even if you take them all together," Whorton said.
In medical monitoring at IBM in the 1980's, Hernandez repeatedly scored high on liver enzyme tests, indicating liver dysfunction that plaintiffs allege was caused by exposure to chemicals, including acetone.
However Whorton testified that acetone, a cleaning solvent used by Hernandez, is not generally associated with liver damage.
Instead, Whorton said the high liver enzyme tests were more likely the result of Hernandez's weight, diabetes and use of blood pressure, hormone therapy and over-the-counter medications.
IBM showed evidence that both its doctors and physicians outside IBM reached similar conclusions and communicated those conclusions to Hernandez while she was working at IBM. Attorneys for IBM showed documents that six doctors and two nurses consulted with Hernandez about her liver tests on a total of ten occasions from December of 1981 to November 1988.Whorton said he did not believe there was anything in the medical records for Hernandez that indicated chemical poisoning.
A 1967 IBM medical report on plaintiff James Moore recorded a "profuse nasal discharge after exposure to solvents." However, Whorton said this was an isolated incident that he believed had only a local, not a systemic, effect on Moore. "Nothing I saw in the file would support the conclusion" that Moore had systemic chemical poisoning due to workplace exposure, said Whorton.
Under cross-examination, plaintiff's attorney Richard Alexander said IBM should not have exposed Hernandez to acetone if they knew she had liver problems, even if they were initially caused by non-work related factors.
Judge Robert A. Baines explained to the jury the current case looks only at the narrow question of whether the plaintiff's injuries were caused by chemicals at the workplace and whether IBM knew about the poisoning and failed to adequately inform the workers. The case does not address whether IBM knew they had illnesses caused outside the workplace that could be aggravated by chemical exposure at work, he said.
Alexander had mixed results in his efforts to punch holes in Wharton's testimony.
He tried to portray Whorton as a corporate champion who has consulted for Shell Oil in a case where it allegedly polluted a aquifer, and for Dow Corning in a breast implant case. The WorkCare Web site also indicates he helps companies find ways to effectively treat employees without having instances recorded against them by government safety agencies.
However, IBM attorneys pointed out Whorton was also at the center of a major pesticide case in which he was at times at odds with large corporations. He has also testified for labor unions seeking better health benefits for workers.
Later, Alexander noted that Moore did not report any problems with hay fever in a medical questionnaire taken in 1966 when he joined IBM. However he did report hay fever in IBM documents in 1967, 1976 and 1982. The problem cleared up after Moore left IBM, suggesting it was a sign of chemical poisoning, Alexander charged.
Under cross-examination, Whorton did admit that the isopropyl alcohol Moore used regularly in his job could be a nasal irritant.
In one exchange, Alexander noted that Hernandez's high liver enzyme scores dropped dramatically, although they were still abnormally high, after IBM restricted her from using acetone for several weeks. That fact indicated acetone was the cause of her liver dysfunction, Alexander said.
"If it were consistent with her use of acetone, I would have expected [the high reading] to go away," Whorton replied.
"No one ever told Alida Hernandez in language she could understand that that acetone caused [her] liver disease," Alexander later charged.
"No one ever told her that because no one believed it," Whorton replied.
IBM's defense continues on Monday (Feb. 2).