updated 12/29/2003 2:25:53 PM ET 2003-12-29T19:25:53

An international chemical company is studying the apparent high rate of brain tumors among employees at a suburban Philadelphia laboratory to see if the tumors are related to chemical exposure.

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Twelve people who work or worked in Rohm and Haas Co.’s Spring House laboratories in Montgomery County have developed brain tumors, some of them fatal.

The rate is about twice the expected rate in the general population, company physicians estimate.

The study, which the chemical company started in June 2002, is scheduled to be released next month, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Sunday.

Rohm and Haas, the nation’s sixth-largest chemical company, declined to release details of the 12 cases. However, the newspaper gathered information about eight of them through interviews with relatives and co-workers.

At least four people worked in or near a lab that developed pesticides, and at least five had similar kinds of tumors. Other cases appear unrelated.

Joan Szerlik, whose husband Tom, a computer programmer on the pesticides floor of the lab, died of a fast-growing brain tumor in 1993, said the company asked for her husband’s medical records a month after his death. But she said she never heard anything more until last year, when the study was announced.

She and some other victims’ relatives wonder why more wasn’t done sooner, given the repeated brain-tumor deaths.

“Wouldn’t it have struck somebody?” Szerlik asked.

About 6,000 chemists, lab technicians and support staff have worked at the Spring House facility in its 40-year history, including 1,000 current employees.

Rohm and Haas said the number of cases did not seem unusual at first, partly because of delays in when they learned of them, due to the way cancers are reported in national databases, company spokesman Syd Havely said.

“As soon as there was an indication that there might have been (a high number of cases), we ... decided a study was absolutely prudent,” he said. “We want to do everything we can.”

In 1986, Rohm and Haas paid more than $24 million to settle lawsuits over lung cancer linked to chemical exposure at its plant in the Bridesburg section of Philadelphia, while denying any wrongdoing.

The company said in 1975 that 27 people had died from the exposure to bis-chloromethyl ether, a contaminant known as BCME. An Inquirer investigation at the time found twice as many deaths, dating back to 1955, among exposed workers.

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