AMERICAN CYANAMID is fined $10,000 for removing women from certain jobs unless they undergo surgical sterilization. E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Company is alleged to be selectively testing blacks for certain genetic traits. Dow Chemical screens workers for genetic damage but, when the tests reveal apparently high rates of chromosome breakage, refuses to inform the affected workers or the government. These cases, and many more, are the early warning signals of what one labor leader has called the coming "era of genetic confrontation."
The disputes involve tests that can reveal the presence of certain genetically determined traits that some scientists believe make workers especially vulnerable to damage from certain toxic substances. The fact that many of the traits are associated with particular ethnic or racial groups makes the tests even more controversial. Also in hot dispute is whether the most basic genetic trait -- sex -- makes women more susceptible to reproductive damage than men, and can therefore be legitimately used to bar women of childbearing age from certain jobs.
The Du Pont screening program illustrates the kind of potential abuse that many believe is inevitable. Du Pont tests prospective black employees for the inherited sickle cell trait, which -- the company believes -- makes the affected individual more susceptible to damage from chemicals that attack red blood cells. According to The New York Times, Du Pont officials contradict each other on whether the results of these tests are used in making hiring and placement decisions.
While the higher frequency of the sickle cell trait among blacks is undisputed, critics wonder why the company does not test for other types of inherited anemia associated with white ethnic groups. In addition, many -- perhaps most -- scientists believe the link between the sickle cell trait and greater vulnerability to chemical damage has not been established.
The central issue, however, is whether the tests are done for the worker's benefit -- to avoid placing him in, or to remove him from, a job that is particularly risky for him -- or for the company's benefit -- to avoid having to clean up the work place and to protect its insurance liability and legal standing in possible future litigation. Critics outside the companies think the tests are primarily an attempt to shift the responsibility for occupational disease from the company to the worker. They argue that a worker's "defective" genes don't make him sick; overexposure to dangerous chemicals does.
Further medical research may conclusively reveal certain genetic traits that make individuals more susceptible to various diseases ranging from emphysema to cancer. Whether the appropriate response will be to restrict certain individuals from more and more types of jobs or to reduce or remove the aggravating dangers remains to be seen. In the meantime, given the number of potentially dangerous chemicals inside and outside the work place, the right focus for company and government attention is on removing the hazard -- not the people.