The Man Who Knew Too Much

Dick Clapp knows cancer. “This is my bible,” he says, holding up a purple book thicker than an actual Bible. The title Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention is printed on the spine. A plaque on the wall in Clapp's tiny office at Boston University's School of Public Health recognizes his work studying the prevalence of breast cancer on Cape Cod. Among the journals lining his shelves is one he edited on sewage sludge. Not the most glamorous topic perhaps, but sewage sludge can contain dioxins, which when spread on agricultural fields can attach to vegetables and cause — that's right — cancer.

Clapp has spent many years trying to pinpoint the environmental factors that cause this disease. He acted as an expert for the Woburn residents who sued W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods, claiming those firms were poisoning the residents' well water with chemicals — a legal battle that served as the basis for the book and film A Civil Action , starring John Travolta.

So Clapp was a natural person to call when workers at an IBM semiconductor plant in San Jose, California, sued, alleging they were contracting cancer from chemicals they worked with. After he was hired by the plaintiffs to analyze data turned over by IBM, Clapp concluded that the plant workers, compared to the national average, were four times as likely to get brain cancer, twice as likely to get breast cancer, and six times as likely to contract multiple myeloma, a rare cancer of the plasma cells.

But Clapp and co-analyst Rebecca Johnson never got a chance to present these conclusions. In the first related case against IBM, brought by a woman who had breast cancer and a man with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the judge ruled Clapp's analysis inadmissible on grounds of irrelevance. When Clapp tried to publish the study in a scientific journal, IBM threatened to sue. Though it denies that its plants have caused cancer in its workers, IBM settled with about 50 former employees in a second suit, demanding that the settlement amounts be kept secret. (More than 100 similar suits are pending in New York.)

If IBM has its way, Clapp's analysis — which suggests, he says, that the company should have known its employees were dying of cancer at high rates — will never see the light of day.

From the beginning, IBM's legal team set about casting doubt on Clapp's study, calling it “junk science” flawed in its methodology, a charge Clapp vigorously denies: “It's not junk science. It's standard methods used for these kinds of studies.”

Clapp used the same type of analysis, he says, in his study of mortality rates of Vietnam veterans — the first report showing that vets were dying at high rates of cancer associated with Agent Orange. “It's all about liability,” he says of IBM's attacks. “It's a strategic choice they're making: 'Let's not let this out the door.'”

With his white hair and beard, round nose, and circles beneath his eyes, Clapp looks like a cross between Santa Claus and Bill Clinton, with the politics to match. He dropped out of medical school in the Vietnam era, wanting to make more of a difference in the world than he could as an M.D. After moving to Massachusetts in 1972, he studied childhood lead poisoning for the state Department of Public Health, then joined a consulting firm where he researched registries that tracked the incidence of cancer. When his former health department colleagues discovered a high rate of leukemia in Woburn, they asked him to set up a registry for Massachusetts. Although W.R. Grace settled the case before Clapp testified, his analysis confirmed his ex-colleagues' suspicions and helped identify “cancer clusters” around the state.

If you own an IBM computer, chances are the semiconductor inside was produced in a plant in Vermont, California, or New York in highly sterile “clean rooms,” where workers in full-body polyester suits dipped semiconductor chips into chemical baths. “It was really a chemical soup,” Clapp says of the solvent mix used by workers in San Jose.

One worker claimed that a solvent melted right through the gloves she wore. In court, an expert witness for plaintiffs Alida Hernandez and James Moore alleged that faulty ventilation forced them to breathe chemical plumes. The employees further asserted that IBM had ignored health problems — ranging from skin rashes and eye infections to headaches and nausea — that the company knew were signs of chemical poisoning and red flags for cancer. More damning, Clapp says, was the information he got, under court order, from IBM itself. “You don't usually get data this detailed in studies like this,” he says.

After the trial in which Clapp's conclusions were deemed inadmissible, however, IBM was found not liable. Stung by the verdict, Clapp let it be known that he planned to publish his study. Within days, an IBM lawyer informed an attorney in a similar case in New York State, for which Clapp was an expert witness, that the information in the BU researcher's study could not be made public.

Clapp and his lawyer, Indira Talwani, contend that IBM failed to declare the report confidential by an agreed-upon deadline in the California case. An IBM spokesman counters that it is confidential nonetheless by the terms of another New York case (in which it was alleged that a teenager's blindness resulted from his parents' employment at an IBM plant) and an appeal of the first California case. Talwani disputes this as well. “No matter how much it wants to,” she says, “IBM can't now put the cat back in the bag.”

Clapp submitted his findings to the journal Clinics in Occupational and Environmental Medicine but was turned down. A spokesman for the journal's parent company, Elsevier, says that, because it presents original research instead of reviewing previously published data, the article does not fit the publication's format. However, guest editor Joseph LaDou, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and longtime critic of the semiconductor industry, says he was not informed of such a stipulation until after Elsevier rejected the manuscript. He speculates that the company was spooked by the possibility of legal action by IBM, a charge Elsevier denies.

LaDou and 12 other contributors told Elsevier in late June that they would withdraw their own work if Clapp's article was not published. “Its significance so dwarfs the generic review papers the rest of us were contributing,” LaDou says. Elsevier refused to back down.

That leaves Clapp's study in limbo. He hopes it will be admissible in upcoming trials, but even that will not ensure that the public sees the data. He is considering submitting it to other journals, but that would subject it to a lengthy review process.

IBM, for its part, has commissioned its own study. Meanwhile, Clapp's analysis sits on a shelf gathering dust, and workers continue to handle potentially dangerous chemicals in IBM's clean rooms. “We're not in an ivory tower here,” Clapp says. “Real people's lives are affected by this.”