Features: Mystery at Rohm & Haas
There is good science, and there is bad science. The distance between the two is an infinitesimal divide.
THERE IS GOOD science, and there is bad science. The former can be replicated. It can be proven. The latter is guesswork and gaps, hunches rather than cold, unshakable certainty. The distance between the two, the good science and the bad, is an infinitesimal divide. It’s the difference between innovation and failure, industry and paralysis, and sometimes, without exaggeration, between life and death. Throughout his career with the Rohm & Haas chemical company, Tom Haag knew good science. His first job there was lab assistant; he was just out of high school, and Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. Except for two years the Army claimed, he would spend the next 38 climbing through the ranks of Rohm & Haas, from chemist to lab chief to R&D and marketing. By Haag’s own estimation, his invention — acrylic latex semi-gloss paint — has resulted in $4 billion in profits. Some might call that great science, with a capital G.
When Haag retired in 1991, his title stretched across his clean white business card: director of corporate development. The company’s Spring House compound in Lower Gwynedd Township, Montgomery County, had become his second home when it opened in 1963. He walked away from Rohm & Haas on very good terms, with a quarter of a million dollars in his pocket, and a four-bedroom sanctuary in Beach Haven Inlet to share with his wife, Dot. He had Rohm & Haas — the nation’s sixth largest chemical company, with $8.2 billion in revenue last year — to thank, and he was grateful.
Haag hadn’t thought of Wayne Kachelries for years, but in his Shore house on an August morning in 1996, memories of his long-lost co-worker stirred as he perused the Wall Street Journal. He read about an Amoco chemical plant in Illinois where an unusual number of brain cancers had been discovered — four malignant tumors since 1982. Amoco responded by closing 39 labs and offices, and launching an investigation.
A few details reached out to Haag: The Amoco employees all worked in the same building. They probably worked with some of the same chemicals that Wayne Kachelries once handled at Spring House. And Kachelries, at age 44, died of brain cancer.
After a couple phone calls to Rohm & Haas went nowhere, Haag, then 61, sat down and wrote to a man he knew by his first name: the company’s medical director, Phil Lewis. Applications chemists like himself, Haag explained, regard synthesis guys like Kachelries, who are often exposed to high levels of dangerous low-molecular chemicals, “as coal miners regard canaries.” Haag’s curiosity spilled onto the page: Did Kachelries have the same type of cancer as the Amoco workers? Were there chemicals in common between his old friend and those “poor fellows”? Haag understood all the ways in which the Haas family has quietly shaped Philadelphia, with charitable gifts measured by the millions each year. With lives possibly at stake, Haag knew he’d hear back soon. “By receipt of this letter,” he wrote, “I fully transfer the burden of this troublesome thought to your back.”
While Haag waited for an answer, the family of Robert Kwiedis, another Rohm & Haas employee, was mourning his death six months earlier. He was the fourth Spring House man to die of the same brain cancer since 1982 — the same span of time as the four Amoco victims. There were more before him, and more yet to come. Eighteen Spring House workers had brain tumors, of which 14 were malignant. Today, those 14 employees are dead. Thirteen of them worked in the same three buildings. Rohm & Haas has launched two investigations of its own, but Spring House remains open. And Tom Haag is still waiting for good science to answer his questions.
CHEMISTRY ISN’T SEXY. Hollywood heroes don’t wear lab coats, and Sissy Spacek wouldn’t have an Oscar if she’d played a chemist’s daughter. But to follow Haag’s analogy, coal miners and chemists share some occupational concerns. No matter how cautious they are, no matter how many years they’ve spent down in the tunnels, or “on the bench” testing new compounds, they never know. Today could be the day the earthen roof gives way and shrouds you in black forever. Today could be the day you expose yourself to a chemical that will kill you. Coal miners and chemists understand the risks they take, and they share a knowing bravado. Safety doesn’t mean you’re ever really safe. Men die in coal mines. Men also die for science.
If there’s an aboveground equivalent to the coal mine, it was industrial Philadelphia in the first half of the 20th century, and its epicenter was the river wards along the lower Northeast. The factories that blackened those blue skies and filled the air with an acrid stench defined folks there as much the neighborhoods they lived in. You weren’t from Philadelphia; you were from Bridesburg, and wiping soot from your windowsills when the wind blew across open mountains of coal from Koppers Coke was as natural as breathing. You worked for Allied Chemical or Rohm & Haas, and if you didn’t, someone on your street or in your family did. No one knew the names of the chemicals they mixed in 100-gallon open kettles. But everyone knew that come the Fourth of July, there would be hot dogs and ice cream and the best fireworks display in the city, all courtesy of Rohm & Haas, whose founder, Otto Haas, was said to regard his workers as his own children.
Like Colonial settlers bearing gifts for the natives, Rohm & Haas arrived on the Delaware from Germany in 1909 with a synthetic soup that would replace the pungent dog-manure mixture used to tan hides. That was a very good thing for the booming tanneries in Frankford, and for their neighbors. It was war, though, that clamored for the company’s next invention, Plexiglas. Thanks to World War II, Rohm & Haas became one of America’s fastest-growing chemical interests, and its shatterproof plastic shielded pilots in both the American military and the Luftwaffe.
Back home in Philadelphia, the price to pay for innovation was as obvious as the frequent staccato air-horn blasts that sounded after explosions. As a Bridesburg worker once told an Inquirer reporter, “When you went to work for a chemical plant, you knew you weren’t working for Breyers ice cream.” So commonplace were mishaps that the company paid for its own ambulance corps. Its buildings were designed with fly-away roofs that would blow off and walls that would break away, to minimize damage. Catastrophes weren’t just possible. They were inevitable.
IN 1967, FOUR years after the Spring House campus opened, eight Rohm & Haas executives gathered in the new corporate headquarters at 6th and Market streets, which overlooked Independence Mall and was dressed up with Plexiglas chandeliers in the lobby. Founder Otto Haas was no longer alive, but his sons, F. Otto and John C. Haas, were there, listening to the results of an independent study that linked the chemical BCME with the lung cancer that was sweeping through a black, windowless monolith in R&H’s Bridesburg plant known as Building 6. Mice exposed to BCME were overcome by cancer at an alarming rate, just like the men who worked with the clear liquid and breathed its fumes.
Though its conclusions seemed obvious, the science behind the study wasn’t good. Hazelton Laboratories, hired by the company to study BCME, wanted quick results, so it used mice already predisposed to cancer, a protocol one expert would later call “stupid.” But while another cancer authority subsequently acknowledged holes in the study’s methodology, he cautioned, “The signal it gives should not have been disregarded.” Rohm & Haas did just that, declaring the results “not conclusive” due to the questionable research. So men like Bob Pontious, a 200-pound hulk who was once commended by the company for saving property and equipment used for the valuable BCME processes from a raging fire inside Building 6, continued to work, and the massive kettles continued to release their vapors. Two decades later, the company would settle the last of the lawsuits from the widows of the Death House, as it was known among its workers; the body count is estimated to stand at well over 60.
Building 6 would change the company forever. “It’s like if you were to measure some Biblical event, like pre-Flood, post-Flood,” says Rohm & Haas spokesman Syd Havely. New hires were given copies of “54 Who Died,” the groundbreaking Inquirer report that revealed the BCME crisis, and the book that followed, Building 6. Safety, once a guideline, became a prime directive. An in-house department of epidemiology was also created, to track and analyze any unusual illnesses among workers. It would practice good science, in service of the workers’ health, not the bottom line.
Tom Haag figured the ghosts of Building 6 would spook his former company into fast action regarding his letter about Wayne Kachelries. The company’s medical director, Phil Lewis, passed Haag’s concerns down to Arvind Carpenter, Rohm & Haas’s chief epidemiologist, and gave him two directives: Call the head of the Amoco study, and examine the Rohm & Haas cancer registry. A quick browse through that database turned up five cases — not enough, Carpenter said, to warrant concern. He never called Amoco. For the next six years, the company did nothing more.
BARRY LANGE NEVER saw the old Rohm & Haas-sponsored fireworks in Bridesburg — he grew up in Levittown, where his bedroom also served as his chemistry lab. Those childhood experiments led him to a career as a celebrated polymer chemist at Spring House. Everyone there seemed to know him, and if Rohm & Haas had been a high school, Lange would have been its homecoming king. He played softball with his R&H buddies, and harmonica in a blues outfit dubbed the Beaker Band. What Lange most looked forward to every year was July, when he’d rent a beach house on the Outer Banks for a week with his wife and their two daughters.
Away from work, Lange was a goofball, always joking around with his girls — always doing something, like molecules in perpetual motion. That’s why, in 2001, it was so odd to see him spend so much of his time at the seashore rental lying down. His wife, Linda, figured he was exhausted — he’d just left Rohm & Haas after 21 years, for a job at Johnson & Johnson. The average Rohm & Haas career lasts longer than most marriages, and leaving the company was an emotional parting for Lange. But now he was acting just plain weird, like during charades night, when his pantomimes didn’t match his words. It was like something had scrambled the dictionary in his head.
Vomiting fits came the next week, then a seizure. An ambulance sped Lange to Abington Hospital, where surgeons removed 90 percent of a golf-ball-size tumor from his brain. Like Wayne Kachelries, Lange had glioblastoma multiforme, a fast-moving and lethal strain of glioma — the same cancer type that had prompted Amoco to close its Illinois plant.
Carpenter, the company epidemiologist, didn’t need to consult a cancer database to learn about Lange’s condition. Everyone at Spring House knew. Six years after Haag’s letter about Amoco and glioma, six years after Carpenter determined the five brain cancers at Spring House were nothing to worry about, just one more case — the popular Barry Lange — changed Carpenter’s mind. In June 2002, Lange’s co-workers turned out in force for his 50th birthday party, and Rohm & Haas announced it would do something about the condition that would kill him.
IF YOU WERE to drive past the Spring House plant on Norristown Road, you might think it was a college campus instead of a chemical company. Here, chemists on lunch break walk along the blacktop path that circles the grassy grounds, and picnic benches sit under shady trees.
The many buildings scattered throughout the grounds hide their labs from view, offering no clues to what happens inside. There’s a room filled with mannequin heads where gels and hair sprays are tested on wigs, and a mock grocery-store aisle used to try out floor polishes. You have Rohm & Haas to thank for everything from the thickness of your shampoo and the caulk along your bathtub to the crunch of your Special K cereal and the softness of your red leather gloves. Outside, a few hints are scattered about, like the fence behind a huge aluminum-sided shed marked 4C, crowned with barbed wire and DANGER signs. That’s a new building; Barry Lange worked in the two conjoined to it, 4A and 4B, homes of agricultural chemicals and biocides. If you worked in one, you shuffled back and forth through the other. Directly across a grassy field is Building 2, where scientists mix chemicals and apply them to leather. Stop to listen, and you’ll realize there’s never a true silence at Spring House, with the constant hum of motors spinning, and exhaust pipes pumping out who knows what.
In June 2002, Arvind Carpenter began assembling an epidemiological study to determine if working at Spring House was causing brain cancer. Though he had been a dentist in his native India, Carpenter holds a doctorate in public health and worked for two years at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, where he co-authored a workplace investigation into cancers of the nervous system. While Amoco had commissioned the University of Alabama — Carpenter’s alma mater, coincidentally — to investigate its Illinois plant independently, Rohm & Haas opted for an in-house approach.
Carpenter knew that with any scientific study, the first steps are often the most critical, the foundation upon which all findings will stand. He faced a series of crucial choices in creating the study’s blueprint — its protocol. Standard cancer epidemiology begins with a mortality study, which determines how many people have died; then a second study, called a case control, is done to pinpoint what caused those deaths. Carpenter figured he could launch the case control study first, and that he wouldn’t need a mortality study at all. As he outlined in a 2002 proposal he gave to his bosses, if he chose that approach over the traditional one, his study would be finished three years earlier, and he would save the company $440,000.
His decision made two numbers hugely important — the number of cases, meaning the number of employees with brain cancer, and the size of the population from which he would select both “cases” and the healthy employees he’d compare them to, called “controls.” By not doing a mortality study first, Carpenter was gambling, relying on a company cancer database and national death records to tally the cancer victims. “Hopefully,” he wrote, “all these cases will be identified.”
Then there was the question of how to define the population of the study itself — who to include in this research? Carpenter outlined four possibilities, but ultimately chose to limit the study to Spring House employees only. If you mowed lawns there for one day in 1971, you were included. If you worked there for years in biocides and polymers, like Tom Haag, you were also included. At the start, Carpenter estimated Spring House’s brain cancer rate was “4 or 5 times” that of the U.S. population.
About 100 workers gathered in the Spring House Technical Center auditorium to hear Carpenter announce his plans in June 2002. He emphasized that outside consultants would be hired, and that when the study was completed, by December 2003, a written report would be submitted to a peer-review panel, then published in a medical journal. When the time came for questions, Haag remembers standing up and unloading six years of frustration.
“Do you know if Wayne Kachelries died of glioma?” Haag asked.
“Who?” said Carpenter. “No, I don’t know anything about that.”
“Have you spoken with the epidemiologist from Amoco?”
“No, I’ve never spoken with him.”
Barry and Linda Lange also listened to Carpenter’s presentation, along with Rohm & Haas spokesman Syd Havely. Havely recalls speaking with Lange afterward, and remembers the swelling on Lange’s face, evidence of his radiation treatments. “He endorsed the study,” Havely says. “That was very touching. I’ll never forget that. He said this is a good study.”
Linda Lange’s memory differs: “Barry wasn’t impressed. We weren’t impressed that a cafeteria lady got the same [consideration] as someone on the bench.”
The Langes didn’t realize that others would be disqualified, not because they didn’t work at Spring House, but because the company considered them “assigned” to one of its other facilities — Bristol, Bridesburg, or, like Charles Hart, the headquarters at 6th and Market. Hart had an office there, but as a leather chemicals sales manager, he spent so much time in Building 2’s leather department that he moved to Norristown Road to be closer to work. One day in 1976, a co-worker found Hart stumbling around on the job, acting like he was drunk. He wasn’t a boozer, though — a brain tumor was toying with his equilibrium. Hart died one month after being diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, and Rohm & Haas paid a death benefit of two months’ salary, plus $1,000, to his family.
Hart had trained a young saleswoman named Olivia Ranalli. She was a knockout, with long black hair and curves that made her stand out at Spring House like a supermodel at a science fair. Ranalli traveled to fashion shows in London and Paris, then reported back to Hart on the newest leather trends that Rohm & Haas could replicate. Hart and Ranalli went on sales calls and applied chemicals to leather goods. She often had a Rohm & Haas-treated coat or handbag when she made an entrance in Building 2, where she was likely exposed to a variety of chemicals, including vinyl chloride, a carcinogen ranked fourth on the Department of Health and Human Services’ hazardous-substances list. By the time Carpenter announced his Spring House study in 2002, Ranalli had left Rohm & Haas and was working at St. Joe’s Prep, with no idea the same kind of cancerous mass that had killed her old supervisor, Charlie, would soon form in her own brain.
Lange and Kachelries in Buildings 4A and B. Hart and Ranalli in Building 2. The five brain cancers Carpenter found in 1996. Linda Lange would eventually see how all the numbers added up. But as the audience left after Carpenter’s presentation, she kept one thought to herself: Barry will never live to see the end of this.
WHEN BARRY LANGE got sick, Charles Hsu was worried, too. Hsu worked in Buildings 4A and B with Lange, including on one project aimed at reducing the hazardous effects of a group of chemical compounds, nitrosamines, on public health. Hsu wondered if there was something deadly growing inside him, too.
With thick glasses and his hair parted hard to the left, the 59-year-old Hsu was every bit as smart as the amiable lab geek he resembled. But when his wife Lee, an immunologist at Wyeth, asked him to see a doctor about his headaches, he brushed it off. It wasn’t like him to forget things, though, like the lyrics to his favorite songs during a karaoke party at their home in Downingtown. Within a week, in August 2003, Hsu had his first CAT scan, followed by surgery to remove half of a glioblastoma multiforme clump, then a flight to Houston for a second operation. All along, Charles kept telling Lee, “Rohm & Haas will take care of me.” She explained to him that the company wasn’t doing anything for him, that it was up to their insurance now — her insurance with Wyeth, actually, which was better than his. But Charles wouldn’t hear it. “Rohm & Haas,” he insisted, “will take care of me.”
Lee wonders if her husband just wasn’t thinking clearly, but considering his company’s history, it’s not surprising that Charles Hsu expected Rohm & Haas to be there for him. The Haas family’s altruism goes far beyond the company’s food-and-coal deliveries to the people of Bridesburg during the Depression. In 1945, Otto Haas created what would become the William Penn Foundation, which, with $111 million in paid and awarded grants last year alone, is now the third largest philanthropic foundation in the area. Otto’s son, F. Otto, carried on that tradition before his own death in 1994, sharing his estimated $500 million fortune to rescue the Morris Arboretum from disaster and reconstruct the Swann Fountain on Logan Circle. Without his efforts, the Walnut Street Theatre would be a parking lot today. John C. Haas, F. Otto’s younger brother, was director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia, and despite his Republican alignment has supported anti-war protest groups during Vietnam and Iraq. You won’t see the family name splashed across the civic and charitable projects it supports, but its contributions have shaped nearly every facet of life in Philadelphia.
Charles Hsu understood the company culture — one that evolved from its founder’s belief that employees were family. That’s partly why so many Rohm & Haas workers’ careers have spanned decades. As a near-20-year employee of Spring House, Hsu wasn’t surprised to hear that Arvind Carpenter and David Greenley, the Spring House site manager, were flying to Houston to visit him. His second operation wasn’t a complete success — surgeons couldn’t remove the last five percent of his tumor. Afterward, at Charles’s sister’s house near the hospital, Lee Hsu did most of the talking while her husband rested. She says Carpenter invited them to take part in the study, then explained that Hsu wasn’t eligible for workers’ compensation, since there was no indication his cancer was job-related. “Carpenter wasn’t really caring about my husband,” she says. Less than an hour later, Carpenter and Greenley were gone.
When asked about the purpose of the Houston trip, Greenley called it a “private conversation,” without further elaboration. The day before, R&H publicist Havely took a lengthy pause before answering the same question. “I think a lot of it,” he says, “was driven by human compassion.”
INSIDE THE DRAB Spring House auditorium on January 8, 2004, Carpenter looked nervous presenting a PowerPoint slide show of the findings of his cancer study before a lunchtime crowd of Rohm & Haas employees. Dressed in a gray suit, with an American flag pin on his lapel and square-framed glasses on his face, he shifted from one foot to the other, and wiped sweat from his lip with a handkerchief.
Carpenter announced he’d found no connection between the brain cancers and any chemical or building on the site. Though two of the three members of the study’s independent advisory board were present — the third, Carpenter said, had “prior commitments” — it was Carpenter who did all the talking. Again, he insisted the report would be peer-reviewed and published by year’s end. “It is my belief,” he said, “based on the results of this study and review of the current safety practices, Spring House is a safe place to work.” A handful of employees asked polite follow-up questions, and after a light smattering of applause, the presentation was over.
Carpenter doesn’t work well off-script, and the proof is evident in what he left out of his presentation. All three of the “independent advisers” had worked with either Carpenter or his boss, Phil Lewis, in the past; the missing member, Elizabeth Ward, was at NIOSH with Carpenter before she joined the American Cancer Society. But Ward didn’t really have a scheduling conflict that day. In November, she told Carpenter via e-mail that she felt “uncomfortable about what role you are asking me to play in meeting with the workers,” and also asked him to “avoid any implication that my participation … implies an endorsement of the study by the American Cancer Society.”
Ward outlined specific concerns about the study in a series of e-mails to Carpenter. She was troubled that the controls — “one of the most important elements in a case control study,” she said — were selected before the advisory committee was in place. According to the American Chemistry Council, of which Rohm & Haas is a member, protocols must be approved before a study begins. The ACC calls that “good epidemiology.” Ward and her fellow advisers first met with Carpenter in August 2003, 13 months after the study began, long after the decision to launch a case control study was made. She would later tell Carpenter it would have been “desirable” to conduct a parallel mortality study, “to get a more precise estimate of the expected number of deaths.”
Then, on Christmas Eve 2003, after she reviewed the results Carpenter sent her — PowerPoint slides, not the raw data — she e-mailed him this:
It appears that exposures in Building 2, 4A or 4B might be associated with increased risk. Have you looked at what processes or chemicals these buildings have in common? I’m still not entirely comfortable with your early decision to proceed with the case control study without a … mortality study.
“I was at NIOSH for 21 years, and I’m a stickler for these things,” Ward said recently when asked about the study. She still has not been given a complete report, and has only seen the slides Carpenter sent her. “I’m pretty rigid about what constitutes a report and what constitutes an adequate basis for my review. It obviously didn’t meet that.” Before Carpenter announced his findings, she recommended that he write up his study “for more formal consideration by the Advisory Committee” and seek its advice on what steps to take next. That, she says, never happened: “That was probably the point where I said I didn’t want to serve as a consultant anymore.”
There would be no reference to Ward’s concerns in Carpenter’s slide show or any Rohm & Haas public communications. Also missing from the presentation was an explanation for why Carpenter’s initial estimate of the Spring House brain cancer rate had changed from “4 to 5 times” the national average to a less alarming “two times.” Nor was there any mention of two chemicals that, in a draft of the report from Syd Havely nine days before Carpenter announced his findings, were linked to the brain cancers. One of those chemicals, N-Nitrosodimethylamine, is considered a carcinogen by the Centers for Disease Control; the other, 1,3 propane sultone, according to the National Institutes of Health, is “anticipated” to cause cancer. Lange, Hsu, and other Spring House cancer victims are reported to have worked with one or both. Havely calls the reference to those chemicals “a mistake” on his part, one that Carpenter corrected.
Eight months before she heard Carpenter’s findings, Linda Lange buried her husband. A crowd of Rohm & Haas employees attended the funeral. Lee Hsu had more important things to do than drive down from North Jersey to hear Carpenter deliver his predictable conclusion. By then, her husband, once an accomplished chemist, was struggling with simple questions: Do you have any children? Hsu would smile, but you could see it in his eyes — his mind was like a computer searching in vain for deleted files. “One boy,” he’d finally say, forgetting about his daughter.
Tom Haag saw Carpenter’s presentation, though, and that afternoon, his concerns became a crusade. What stoked Haag’s passion was Carpenter’s insistence, despite questionable findings and an incomplete study, that Spring House was “safe.” As Ward herself pointed out just before the results were revealed, “It may be difficult to draw definitive conclusions from the case control analysis.”
AFTER MONTHS SPENT knocking on the doors of six major Center City law firms, Haag met Aaron Freiwald, an ambitious 44-year-old attorney who’d been a journalist in a not-so-distant past life. Freiwald the lawyer knew that a suit against Rohm & Haas was like cleaning the Aegean stables — Herculean in scope, an epic roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-dirty undertaking. But what remained of Freiwald the reporter couldn’t ignore the story here — the widows vs. the multi-national chemical company, and the study that, in finding nothing, convinced both sides they were right. Haag introduced Freiwald to the families of Lange, Hsu and Ranalli. All three are suing the company, and Freiwald is juggling those cases with a class-action suit he hopes will enlist hundreds of Rohm & Haas employees, not in search of a windfall of cash, but to force the company to offer regular cancer screenings.
Freiwald met Carpenter during a three-day deposition at his law offices high above Walnut Street. Linda Lange and the Hsus were there, too, watching from across the long granite table as Carpenter, accompanied by an attorney from Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, wiped sweat from his brow. It was hard to tell if his perspiration was due to Freiwald’s broken air conditioner or the questions the epidemiologist struggled to answer. Carpenter was asked why the Spring House brain cancer rate changed from “4 to 5 times” to “two times” in his results. Carpenter couldn’t recall. Confronted with Ward’s concerns, Carpenter said he disagreed with her, but didn’t remember if he’d expressed that to her directly. Why hadn’t the study been published, two and a half years after he’d promised it would be? “A lot of other distractions,” Carpenter said. When asked if any employees were involved in monitoring the study, he cited just one: Tom Haag.
Rohm & Haas has declined to make Carpenter or Lewis available for interviews, but its spokesman, Syd Havely, agreed to sit down at the company headquarters, which still towers above the Liberty Bell, and where Plexiglas chandeliers still greet visitors in the lobby. Havely is an old hand when it comes to Rohm & Haas crises. He spoke for the company when a Pitman, New Jersey, landfill it dumped in became the nation’s top Superfund site. Three cancer studies were done on that property, which included a lake used by Girl Scouts for summer camp. “The company is aware of no credible medical evidence that points to any adverse health effects,” he told the Inquirer, 13 months before Rohm & Haas agreed to a multimillion-dollar settlement to fund medical monitoring for 1,600 people exposed to the hazards of that site.
Over the course of two hours, Havely did a lot of talking, but revealed very little. He expressed a derisive respect for the efforts of Haag, Rohm & Haas’s gray-haired Erin Brockovich. “If we did this study in 1996, we wouldn’t have found anything different,” Havely said. “You gotta admire Tom Haag. You feel for him: ‘I knew!’ No, he didn’t know. He suspected.” Havely confirmed that Carpenter is still finishing a follow-up mortality study that is now a year overdue, then admitted what the company says it will reveal sometime this year — no new cases have been found, so its number of brain cancers remains at 15. When asked why the study didn’t include Charles Hart, Olivia Ranalli, or others who worked at Spring House but weren’t “assigned” to it, Havely said, “It’s not sound science to take that population into consideration.”
Havely also admitted that Carpenter misreported the total number of employees at Spring House, which is actually 4,800, not 5,600, as the first study indicated. He mentioned this casually, but Carpenter’s mistake actually holds tremendous significance. The case control study relied on a figure called “person years at risk,” meaning that if you worked one day at Spring House in 1970, your years-at-risk start on that date and continue until you die. Fifteen brain cancer victims out of 5,600 employees — and those employees’ estimated total 100,000 “person years at risk” — led Carpenter to the brain cancer rate of twice the national average.
Now, though, it turns out there are 800 fewer workers. Forget science, good or bad — logic would dictate that the “years at risk” of those 800 people should be subtracted from that estimated 100,000 years. That would make the rate — 15 cases over a new, smaller “years-at-risk” number — even more significant, perhaps right where Carpenter first estimated it, at four or five times the average. But Havely says the years-at-risk number is the same in the new study.
Havely said the truest test of Carpenter’s science and the company’s position will come when Carpenter submits the results of both studies to the American Journal of Industrial Medicine by the end of 2007. “I can go to sleep at night because I’ve never been asked to sweep something under the rug,” Havely added. “We’re going to stand or fall by this study. Was it the right thing to do? We think so.”
TWO WEEKS AFTER his interview, Havely wrote a letter in response to a question about who was advising Carpenter on his second study. Though two of the original advisers said they haven’t spoken to anyone at Rohm & Haas since 2004, Havely says all three had been asked, as of August 2007, to “continue” to work with Carpenter and provide “review and comment” for the new mortality study they played no part in developing or monitoring.
Havely also points to the official Rohm & Haas history book, specifically chapter 12, which spins Bridesburg’s BCME nightmare as a valuable learning experience, one that Rohm & Haas went to great lengths to resolve. There is no mention of William Figueroa, a bold young University of Pennsylvania medical school graduate who in 1972 began a study of BCME and was told by Rohm & Haas that it had no exposure data for Bridesburg. Figueroa sought help from Bob Pontious, the Building 6 grunt who’d once been commended for bravery during an explosion there. Literally from his deathbed, wearing an oxygen mask, Pontious gave Figueroa the names of everyone he knew who’d been exposed to the deadly chemical. Based on that information, Figueroa drafted a report that would help define BCME as a carcinogen. At the time, a company official dismissed Figueroa’s study as “hearsay.” When the doctor died in 2002, his obituary praised his work as an occupational medicine “landmark.”
Otto Haas once advised his sons to steer clear of politics, but as the Bridesburg lung cancers mounted, Rohm & Haas used its political clout to derail workplace safety legislation that would have protected workers from potentially harmful chemicals, including BCME — a six-year effort that led to more deaths. Rohm & Haas even used the Figueroa study it had once belittled as proof of its own culpability, when it tried to secure state aid to defray the cost of paying women like Marie Pontious, the Building 6 hero’s widow. Before accepting the company’s offer, she was required to forfeit her right to sue the company in the future.
One of Tom Haag’s greatest frustrations over the past 11 years has been the silence from the top floors of Rohm & Haas. He’s not a mailroom Don Quixote yelling truth to power; he knew CEO Raj Gupta when he worked there. He knew John Haas, the venerable ex-chairman of the board. He wrote letters to them both in 2002, and both went unanswered. It’s a different company these days, far removed from Otto Haas’s vision of making everyone feel like part of a family business. The agricultural chemicals department Lange and Hsu worked in was sold years ago, and 1,000 workers have lost their jobs over the past three years.
Haag still hasn’t heard from Gupta about the letter, and Gupta has never commented publicly about the Spring House study. Neither has John Haas, who is now 89 and rarely makes the trip from his Villanova estate to his Center City office. “I would say he’s being mushroomed by his staff,” Haag says. “The mushroom treatment is when you keep people in the dark and feed them horseshit.” As jaded as Haag has become, he can still see Rohm & Haas through a romantic lens, daydreaming that if someone were to tell John Haas what’s really going on, he’d set things right.
When reached at his home, Haas proved him wrong. “The bottom line is, [the Rohm & Haas management] have kept the family abreast of the situation,” he said in a brief phone call. “The studies are in progress, and there’s really nothing to say.”
OF THE 15 brain cancers Rohm & Haas acknowledges at Spring House, 12 were malignant, and all 12 of those diagnoses led to funerals, the most recent being Charles Hsu’s, in July. Eleven of those 12 worked in Buildings 4A and B or 2. Then there’s Charlie Hart, and Olivia Ranalli, whose passing led St. Joe’s Prep to close for a day so students and faculty could mourn at her casket. Seventeen cancers, 14 deaths. A woman named Joan Albert spent almost two years at Spring House, but she was never contacted for either study. Luckily for Albert, her tumor is benign. That’s 18.
That number doesn’t include guys like Stan Skalski, who never stepped foot at Spring House but spent years mixing five-gallon buckets of leather chemicals at Bridesburg. He only half-joked to his family that if he died, “Get a lawyer, because Rohm & Haas killed me.” Good science, says the company, can’t include him in the study. But good science isn’t an abstraction, a theoretical ideal. It’s based on decisions that go beyond what’s logical and swift and cheaply produced. The best science begins in the brain and ends in the gut. To exclude brain cancer victims like Hart, Ranalli and Skalski, knowing there’s a link between them and those who died in biocides, pesticides and leather chemicals at Spring House — is that good science? It underscores what Haag has insisted and what Ward has implied, in plain, unemotional language — Carpenter’s research isn’t conclusive. When Carpenter says Spring House is safe, that’s his gut speaking, not science. But who can say his gut is worth more than Tom Haag’s?
Today, though most workers at Spring House seem unaware that a second study is even under way, much less nearly complete, they still talk among themselves about brain cancer. Few speak to the press, fearing the “new Rohm & Haas” will make their lives miserable. One employee who attended Carpenter’s meetings sums up what others have also said in private about the study: “It was a bunch of bull. We knew [the results] before it took place. It was a charade, a facade: ‘You guys are safe.’ You don’t want to be the one guy to ask the hard questions and change the tone of the meeting. It’s Bridesburg all over again.”
With current workers fearing for their health and their job security, and with most retirees either still loyal to Rohm & Haas or unwilling to spend their golden years entangled in litigation, the burden of asking the tough questions falls to the widows, to Freiwald, and to Tom Haag. The company has changed in so many ways since Bridesburg, but Haag wonders: 10 years from now, should more leather chemists and synthesis scientists die, will there be settlements and lawyered-up mea culpas, just like in the Building 6 aftermath? He fears he may not live to see the widows of the Spring House 14 get their answers. Until either a judge or the Reaper delivers Haag a verdict, he’ll keep asking questions. And Marie Pontious, who now lives less than two miles from the Bridesburg home she shared with her husband, still aches over the sacrifice he unknowingly made each day simply by working for Rohm & Haas.