- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Railroad workers exposed to certain cleaning solvents have been found to experience shrinking of the brain, leading to symptoms such as irritability and depression, and a lack of a concentration and memory, according to a recent medical study.

The four-year study by researchers at West Virginia University, the University of Pittsburgh and Johns Hopkins University showed that repeated exposure to a range of chemicals used to degrease locomotives caused a bridge of tissue linking the brian’s two hemispheres to shrink.

The study was initiated after hundreds of railroad workers who used the solvents from the 1950s to the 1990s, including those at rail giant CSX Corp., were diagnosed with brain damage.

The workers who participated in the study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in June, came primarily from railroad cleaning and repair shops in Cumberland, Md., and Huntington, W.Va. The study compared brain images of 31 railroad workers who were exposed to the solvents for at least 10 years with 31 persons who weren’t exposed.

“These individuals we studied have numerous complaints and a variety of problems related to the brain,” said Haut Marc, the lead author of the report and a professor in the departments of behavioral medicine and psychiatry, neurology and radiology at the West Virginia University School of Medicine.

None of the workers studied has died from exposure of the solvents, like 1,1,1-trichloroethane, trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene — industrial chemicals once widely used in the industry. And most don’t show serious disabilities, Dr. Haut said.

Because this is the first study of its kind, it is too early to determine whether the brain can regenerate itself after a person stops coming in contact with the chemicals for many years, Dr. Haut said.

“We did not study these people before and after to answer that question,” he said. “So while there’s a tendency to infer that [the brain damage] is permanent, I would be cautious in drawing that conclusion.”

But the study, which was funded partly with a grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, clearly showed brain damage became worse the longer a person was exposed to the chemicals, he said.

Gary Sease, a spokesman for CSX, said the company continues to think there is no credible and conclusive scientific basis to support claims that solvent exposure harmed company workers.

CSX has won and lost jury verdicts in chemical exposure cases that have gone to trial. It has argued that its workers problems could be explained by other factors, such as drinking alcohol, side effects from prescribed medicines or illnesses such as depressor or diabetes.

CSX, the railroad company with the largest number of claims, had paid out nearly $35 million to more than 460 current or former workers diagnosed with brain damage, the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., reported.

Railroads began phasing the chemicals out of their shops in the early 1990s.

Dr. Haut said it’s possible other variables could be responsible for the subjects’ brain damage. But any workers with substance-abuse problems, a history of serious medical illness or a diagnosis of mental illness before solvent exposure were excluded from the study, he said.

“We worked very hard in selecting our subjects to rule out any other condition that could affect the brain in terms of size, shape and amount,” he said.

Workers involved in pending litigation with the railroad were not chosen to participate.

Joseph D. Satterley, a Louisville attorney who represents railroad workers, said he is aware of at least 100 pending lawsuits in Kentucky and elsewhere that were filed in the past few years.

The study, he said, “substantiates everything we’ve been saying all along.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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