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Study says solvents used by railroad workers can cause brain damage

Sep 7, 2006 | AP

Cleaning solvents used in railroad work can cause brain damage, according to a recent study.

Researchers from West Virginia University, the University of Pittsburgh and Johns Hopkins University found that the chemicals shrunk the bridge that helps one side of the brain communicate with the other, The Courier-Journal of Louisville reported.

The study, funded by the federal government, bolsters evidence that degreasers can damage the brain and lends more creditability to claims by hundreds of railroad workers diagnosed with brain damage after cleaning locomotives with solvents from the 1950s through the early 1990s.

The report is connected with the nation's first large, independently funded study that seeks to explain how railroad workers may have been affected by solvents. Workers who participated in the study came from railroad shops in Cumberland, Md., and Huntington, W.Va.

"We were able to identify a change to the structure of the brain,'' said lead author Marc Haut, a professor in the departments of behavioral medicine and psychiatry, neurology and radiology at the West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown.

Researchers sought funding for the study after numerous railroad workers with the same symptoms began showing up in the researchers' clinics, Haut said.

The findings were published in June in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. They are based on comparing images of the brains of 31 railroad workers who were exposed to solvents over a period of at least 10 years to 31 people who were not.

Haut said they found a correlation between brain loss and workers' performance on tests that evaluated processing speed, attention and concentration.

In a 10-month investigation in 2000 and 2001, The Courier-Journal learned that more than 600 U.S. railroad employees had been diagnosed with similar symptoms after spending years in workplaces where solvents were widely used with little or no protection.

The newspaper found that 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.

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

CSX has both 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 medication, or illnesses such as depression or diabetes.

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

A Louisville attorney who represents railroad workers, told the newspaper for a story on Tuesday that he's aware of at least 100 pending lawsuits in Kentucky and elsewhere that were filed in the last few years.

The study, he said, "substantiates everything we've been saying all along.''

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