State investigates possible Cancer cluster at local plant


Posted on February 18, 2013 at 6:32 PM

Updated Tuesday, Feb 19 at 12:25 PM

CORYDON, Ind. (WHAS11) -- Workers at one plant in Corydon, Ind. are getting sick. Several have been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.

Now, state health officials are trying to determine if there could be a cancer cluster associated with the plant.

“I always start shaking when I do this,” Bill Howard said, pouring a blend of nutrients into a syringe attached to a tube which goes directly into his stomach. “Every two hours. I have four or five cans a day. “

Bill was diagnosed with head and neck cancer in December of 2011, while he was working in the maintenance department at the Tyson chicken processing plant in Corydon, Indiana.

“My life's completely changed,” Howard said, choking back tears.

Bill is not the only Tyson plant worker diagnosed with that type of cancer. Debra Brooks' husband got sick in December 2010.

“Another employee that he works with noticed he had a knot in the side of his neck,” Brooks said. 

Her husband had to have part of his neck removed and now also relies on feeding and oxygen tubes to survive.

“I have watched my husband on his knees taking his fists, hitting the floor while he's puking blood all over the place, trying to make the pain stop,” she said.

“When it first started he weighed 245 and he went down to like 160,” Sharon Paris said of her husband Irvin. “It was because he couldn't eat. Every time he ate, he would choke.”

Irvin died in August of 2011, nine months after he was diagnosed with the same cancer.

“He was the one who pumped the chemicals for sanitation to clean with,” Paris said. Sharon worked at the same plant.

Dr. John Hamm is an oncologist and Assistant Director of the Norton Cancer Institute. He says the type of cancer, head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, is very rare.

“There are probably a few hundred in the state of Kentucky a year, at the most. Probably less than that,” Hamm said.

Hamm says there can be many possible causes of the disease, including lifestyle issues, like smoking, drinking and family history.

“If you have a large number in a short period of time, it probably raises an eyebrow and is worth looking into to see if there's some causative agent,” Hamm said.

The Harrison County Health Department has asked the Indiana Department of Public Health to look into the cases to determine if they represent what's called a "cancer cluster."

“It can be a very entailed and detailed investigation and can take a lot of time sometimes,” Harrison County Health Department Administrator Tony Combs said.

Combs says a cancer cluster is a greater than expected number of cases within a group of people, a geographic area or a period of time.

Sometimes, these can occur in workplaces.

“Obviously, if it's in the workplace, that's an issue where we want to try to eliminate that factor in the workplace that's causing it,” Combs said.

Health officials say that Tyson was just made aware of the possible cancer cluster and that employees of the company are cooperating with investigators.

Tyson is one of America's 100 largest companies and is the world's second largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef and pork.

The company also has a history of EPA and OSHA violations at other facilities.

 Tyson was cited in recent years for failing to provide employees with protective equipment for working with chemicals.

In one case, the company was fined nearly a million dollars after a worker died from exposure to toxic gas.

“Nobody wore respirators or anything,” said Howard, describing the workplace. “As far as vapors and breathing, there's really no way to have stopped it, other than to just stop using that particular chemical.”

“You would choke. You couldn't breathe. It would literally take your breath away,” said Paris, describing the fumes in the plant.

Employees tell us that workers in the sanitation and maintenance departments were the ones who got sick.

They represent only a tiny fraction of the more than 400 plant employees.

“I know of seven people. And it all has to do with the ones who are closest to the chemicals,” said Paris.

“Something needs to be done. There are too many of them coming up with it. His supervisor is now out with cancer,” said Brooks.

Tyson’s Corydon Complex Manager David Whittington issued a video statement.

“I’ve personally known these team members for many years. We are saddened by their health conditions and our hearts go out to them and their families,” Whittington said. “However, we believe there is no connection between their medical condition and the work they have done for us.”

Tyson also says the company will cooperate with the state health department's investigation-- and officials say the cleaning products and sanitizers used at the plant are approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the FDA or both.

Additional Comments from David Whittington:
The team members and the families involved in your story have never come to me or other members of our management team with these claims.
We would like to point out that we use food-grade cleaning products and sanitizers in our plant, just like other food companies, and these products are approved as safe by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration or both.
We provide all our team members a safe working environment.