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Widows Study Refinery's Cancer Cases

Mar 31, 2005 | AP

Before Bill Kearney died of esophageal cancer three years ago at 49, he left his wife, Betty Ann, with a haunting suspicion in his final moments about why he thought he was dying. The shift supervisor at the Bayway Refinery, who never smoked, told his wife to subpoena the company's maintenance records. It was the last conversation the two had together.

Soon after her husband died, Betty Ann Kearney said she received a disturbing letter from another refinery employee it was a list of other co-workers she later learned had died of cancer, too.

"I started studying everything I could about the refinery business," said Kearney, of Lacey Township, who is now 49. "I stopped working it became an obsession. Why did my husband die at such a young age? Why is he not here raising my children? And you have all these other men dead?"

Her suspicions, however, have not been supported by state and federal investigations.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health released a study in January that found reported esophageal cancers at Bayway Refinery failed to meet the criteria for a work-related disease cluster. That report also issued no recommendation for further epidemiological study.

Investigators said the 12 esophageal cancer cases between 1970 and 2001 among refinery employees included two types of disease. Most of the workers included in the study had "at least one known personal risk factor that could explain their esophageal cancer."

Further, they said long-term studies of more than 125,000 petroleum industry workers, including Bayway Refinery employees "have not shown an increased risk of esophageal cancer."

State epidemiologist Dr. Eddy A. Bresnitz said health officials also have taken a look.

"There was no apparent increase in the incidence, particularly of esophageal cancer," he said, noting that some 1,649 men and 614 women were diagnosed with esophageal cancer in New Jersey between 1998 and 2002.

Despite those findings, Kearney remains committed to her efforts. She's already filed a wrongful death suit against the refinery's current and former owners, met with state environmental officials, handed out fliers near the refinery, even traveled to Houston to confront company officials at ConocoPhillips' annual shareholders meeting. She's also trying to plot out where the men who died of esophageal cancer worked in the refinery.

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