Thursday, August 03, 2006

"If We'd Known About It Earlier" -- Myelofibrosis From Benzene Exposure

The Pueblo Chieftain has a rather upsetting article about Bill Stewart, a Colorado man who died of myelofibrosis from exposure to benzene in jet fuel decades earlier. Yet another story of workers being exposed to known hazards without being informed of how to protect themselves, or of how to treat the disease.
Helen Stewart, a retired District 60 elementary teacher, starts her story in 1999 when the couple were vacationing in England and Bill became very ill. They came home; he had a checkup and was hospitalized and a local oncologist eventually diagnosed his illness as myelofibrosis. A doctor in Denver, consulted for a second opinion, agreed with the diagnosis and said exposure to a hazardous chemical earlier in Stewart's life had caused the disease.

That information posed the mystery that launched Helen Stewart's search: What chemical had Stewart, who'd spent nearly 30 years in the insurance business, been exposed to? The Stewarts didn't know, but they took the advice of Helen's sister, a retired anesthetist, and looked at his military service.

"We decided to check out his Air Force history, then we were advised to contact the Department of Veterans Affairs because he'd been exposed to chemicals in the Air Force," Helen Stewart said.

Stewart was in the Air Force during the years 1952 to 1956, stationed at Chanute (Ill.) and Ellsworth (S.D.) air bases; he also attended an aviation school in Indianapolis. He was a mechanic and was exposed to the jet fuel JP-4, a blend of about 60 percent gasoline and 40 percent kerosene. The fuel contained benzene, and chronic benzene exposure was linked to illnesses including myelofibrosis as early as 1938, according to information Helen Stewart has found on the Internet.

Helen Stewart's research led her to Fletcher Allen Health Resource Center, a community hospital in partnership with the University of Vermont College of Medicine, and a paper written by Burlington, Vt., resident David Miller. Miller's paper about JP-4 fuel and its possible implications on public health is posted on the Fletcher Allen Web site.

When she stumbled upon the connection between JP-4, benzene and myelofibrosis, her husband said, "By gosh, I played in that stuff (JP-4) for four years."

And when she mentioned benzene to her husband's oncologist, the physician said that it could cause myelofibrosis.

Stewart was exposed to the jet fuel through his skin, his wife said. He was anemic for 17 years and didn't know why. His right hand (he was right-handed) would crack open and bleed. He frequently had nosebleeds that required him to get emergency-room care. His health slowly degraded, he lost weight and he had to use a wheelchair.

In myelofibrosis, a disease that usually affects people older than 50, bone marrow is gradually replaced by scar tissue and severe anemia results.
Miller is another victim of the jet fuel. He was a semi driver delivering shipments of JP-4 and inhaled it when taking samples. After almost 20 years, his health began to suffer:
"I started spiraling down health-wise, employment-wise. I was dealing with abstract illnesses, going to doctors but nobody had a sense of what was wrong. ‘Something has to be causing it; could it be jet fuel?’ I asked the doctors. I took tests, had a complete physical, X-rays, MRIs. They ruled out everything except environmental exposure."

Today, about a decade later, Miller is 59 and has what loosely could be called environmental illnesses. He has trouble concentrating; his immune system is weakened and he has to guard against infection; he has trouble hearing but his sense of smell is heightened to the point that he starts to panic when he smells gas or diesel fuel.
And then we have a familar, but tragic story, of workers not being told of the hazards of the chemicals they work with:
Helen Stewart doesn't blame the government for her husband's illness, nor did he.

"I'm not bitter toward them but I think they should have investigated it more. What disturbs me is they knew about it (benzene causing myelofibrosis) in 1938. If we'd known he had it earlier, he could have had a bone marrow transplant when he was younger."