Does the exotic metal beryllium cause cancer? Some of the nation's leading experts in occupational cancer are in a bitter batter over that question with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that may soon reach the White House.
"I personally am deeply upset about the carelessness shown in OSHA's approach to this issue," said Dr. Brian MacMahon of Havard University's School of Public Health. "What bothers me most is that I feel there is clear evidence that nay data claiming that berllium is carcinogenic was put together with a preconceived bias."
MacMahon is one of eight experts in occupational cancer so incensed about the suggestion that OSHA may soon label beryllium a carcinogen that they met yesterday at the Cosmos Club to discuss carrying their case against OSHA to the White House.
Besides MacMahon, those attending the Cosmos Club meeting to plan what they called "strategy against OSHA" included MIT's Dr. Adrianne Rogers, the University of Michigan's Dr. Ian Higgins, Duke University's Dr. Leonard Goldwater, New York University's Dr. Merrill Eisenbud and the Cleveland Clinic's Dr. Howard Van Ordstrand.
United against OSHA in the fight over beryllium regulations, the doctors claim that OSHA plans to rule that beryllium causes cancer without proof that it does. OSHA officials reply that they have not made up their minds one way or the other about beryllium, merely that the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has made a study of beryllium workers that shows those workers suffer more from lung cancer than workers in the general population.
This is the study the eight doctors say is biased. They point out that the men who led the NIOSH study are Jospeh K. Wagoner and Dr. Peter Infante, who have both moved to OSHA where the NIOSH study is to be acted on.
Said Dr. H. Daniel Roth, a consultant on health statistics who is also on the staff at Georgetown University; "This is a little like having the attorneys for the prosecution jump into the jury box."
A major complaint about the NIOSH beryllium study is that it is the third attempt in six years by NIOSH to see if beryllium causes cancer. The first two studies were negative. The third study found that 46 beryllium workers out of a force of 3,000 at a plant in Reading, Pa., died in the last 30 years of lung cancer deaths over what might be expected in the general population.
One reason for the findings, said Georgetown's Dr. Roth, is that the third study ignored the smoking habits of the beryllium workers at the plant in Reading and ignored the lung cancer rate in Reading itself, which is 15 percent higher than the national average.
"The smoking habits alone," Dr. Roth said, "would have eliminated the statistical significance of the excess deaths."