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Thomas F. Mancuso, 92; Studied Effects of Workplace Hazards

July 11, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Dr. Thomas F. Mancuso, a pioneering epidemiologist who developed methods now widely used to examine the long-term effects of workplace health hazards, and who became a hero to many in his field for maintaining his scientific integrity in the face of political pressure over his study of the effects of low-level radiation exposure, has died. He was 92.

Mancuso, a University of Pittsburgh professor emeritus, died July 4 of esophageal cancer at an assisted-living center in Oakland, said his son, Thomas P. Mancuso of Los Angeles.

During his more than 50-year career in occupational safety and health, the elder Mancuso pioneered the investigation of the hazards of chemical compounds and metals -- such as dyes, asbestos, chromium and beryllium -- in industrial use. He is generally credited as being the first person to recognize that chromium and beryllium cause cancer.

"Not only did he do this work that was important and brilliant, but he developed the methods that are now used by many researchers to examine all sorts of long-term workplace hazards," said David Michaels, an assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration who is now associate chairman of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University School of Public Health.

"Dr. Mancuso was a tireless and forceful advocate for the health of workers," Michaels said. "But he didn't insist on staying only in the ivory tower."

Mancuso, Michaels said, was also a consultant to the International Assn. of Machinists and had a column in its newspaper in which he answered questions from union members on how to protect themselves from workplace chemical hazards.

"Here's a world-famous epidemiologist who was willing to take the time to make sure that his work and the work of other scientists got to the people who needed it most," Michaels said.

Mancuso generated unwanted controversy in the late 1970s.

As a research professor of occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh, he had been contracted by the Atomic Energy Commission in the mid-1960s to study the effects of low-level radiation on 500,000 workers in the nation's nuclear weapons production plants.

A study by another epidemiologist In 1974 found that former workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state had high rates of cancer. With his own research unfinished, Mancuso refused to endorse an Atomic Energy Commission news release disputing the other study.

In 1976 Mancuso published a partial summary of his own study, which showed a rise in certain types of cancer among workers exposed to low-level radiation at the Hanford plant.

The commission terminated Mancuso's research contract the next year.

He charged that he was removed as director of the $6-million study because he refused to cover up findings of radiation hazards to workers.

His charges of a cover-up, which federal officials denied, led to a congressional hearing in 1978.

In 1979, a General Accounting Office report disputed Mancuso's allegations and concluded that he had been dismissed as the study's director because of poor management. But the report also questioned the wisdom of the Department of Energy, which succeeded the Atomic Energy Commission, in turning the study over to a private research laboratory with strong ties to the nuclear agency.

Commission documents obtained by Mancuso under the Freedom of Information Act and released the same week as the GAO report indicated that the commission had anticipated negative findings in Mancuso's study. The documents revealed that officials were dismayed when Mancuso refused to refute the 1974 study of the Hanford workers and were even more upset when he began to report similar findings.

Dr. Bernard Goldstein, dean of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Public Health, said he considered Mancuso a hero for standing up to the Atomic Energy Commission.

"As a dean of a school of public health, a major goal for me is to make sure my faculty and students know how to tell the truth to power. And Dr. Mancuso is a role model for us," Goldstein said.

In 2000, Congress passed legislation that provides compensation to civilian workers at nuclear weapons factories who get sick as a result of exposure to radiation and chemicals.

"The fact that the federal government finally changed its policy and admitted that workers became sick as a result of making nuclear weapons was a vindication of Dr. Mancuso's work and research," Michaels said.

The Brooklyn-born Mancuso earned his bachelor's degree from Creighton University in Omaha, where he also received his medical degree in 1937.

During World War II, he helped establish public health service organizations in Michigan and Oregon. From 1945 to 1962, when he joined the University of Pittsburgh faculty, he was chief of the division of industrial hygiene in the Ohio Department of Health.

Mancuso retired from his full-time professorship at the University of Pittsburgh in 1982 but continued his research. He published his last paper about seven years ago.

In addition to his son, Mancuso is survived by his wife, Raffaella; two daughters, Margaret Mancuso of Berkeley and Jo-Ellen Mancuso of Watertown, Mass.; and one grandson.

A funeral Mass will be held at 10:30 a.m. Monday at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, 2808 Lakeshore Ave., Oakland.

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