Crime & Courts

Dow Chemical settles brain cancer lawsuits that spurred McCullom Lake suits

Pennsylvania researchers at Rohm and Haas died of brain cancer

Dow Chemical Co. has quietly settled lawsuits filed by the next-of-kin of two chemists whose brain cancer deaths after working at a Rohm and Haas research center indirectly led to the McCullom Lake brain cancer lawsuits.

Dow, which bought Philadelphia-based Rohm and Haas in 2009, settled the two lawsuits without fanfare or announcement in the months prior to Dow’s decision to settle 33 cases alleging that air and groundwater contamination from Rohm and Haas’ specialty chemical plant in Ringwood caused a cluster of brain and pituitary tumors in and around McCullom Lake.

The chemists, the late Charles Hsu and Barry Lange, were two of five researchers in one hallway of the company’s Spring House Technical Center north of Philadelphia who died of brain cancer. Four of the five died of deadly glioblastoma multiforme brain cancer, which is typically seen in about 3 people per 100,000.

At least another dozen brain cancer cases besides the five neighboring employees have been reported among the research center’s former employees.

It was the willingness of Philadelphia attorney Aaron Freiwald to sue the chemical giant in 2005 that led the original three McCullom Lake plaintiffs – three former next-door neighbors diagnosed with brain cancer – to reach out to him. He filed their lawsuits in 2006 – a Pennsylvania judge last month approved the McCullom Lake settlements, the details of which have not been disclosed.

“On behalf of the families, we were pleased to have this long litigation come to a successful conclusion,” Freiwald said.

The Spring House cases had a number of similarities to the alleged McCullom Lake cancer cluster. People who lived or worked next to each other developed the same kind of brain cancer, and the company denied any culpability. And in both cases, epidemiology studies that concluded nothing was amiss – conducted by Rohm and Haas’ corporate epidemiologist in the Spring House cases and by the McHenry County Department of Health for McCullom Lake – withered under significant concerns over their scientific integrity.

Dow settled last July with the widow of Lange, who died of glioblastoma multiforme brain cancer in 2003 at age 50. The company settled last May with the widow of Hsu, who died of the same disease in July 2007 at age 59. Life expectancy after a glioblastoma multiforme diagnosis is measured in months – its victims have a 3 percent chance of being alive five years later.

Both estates settled for $475,000 each, according to court records.

An epidemiology study conducted by Rohm and Haas gave an all-clear, but Freiwald, families of brain cancer victims and others called its validity into question. It did not count several employees who died of brain cancer because they were not technically assigned to the facility by the company, at the same time comparing the reduced cases against the more than 5,000 people who ever worked there since its 1963 opening, even if only for one day.

Rohm and Haas prior to its acquisition by Dow commissioned an outside study by the University of Minnesota. That 2010 study concluded that brain cancer deaths among Spring House employees was about twice what it should be, but it did not link those deaths to any particular exposure – researchers like Hsu and Lange worked with thousands of chemicals.

One of Rohm and Haas’ most persistent critics was retired executive Tom Haag, whose anger over the company’s handling of the cancers turned him into a whistleblower who kept the cancers in the public eye and who talked to Freiwald about taking some of the cases. Haag died in December 2012 at age 77.

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