UCLA Study Burns Rocketdyne 

Cancer rates elevated among space-lab workers

Wednesday, Apr 21 1999
Photo by Intelecom of Pasadena

The other gooey shoe dropped last week in Simi Valley. UCLA’s School of Public Health released its long-term study of Rocketdyne employees exposed to a soup of toxic chemicals while working on the company’s giant rocket test-stands.

The results were grim: Increased rates of cancer were found, especially among workers who handled hydrazine, a high-octane gel used as a rocket-engine propellant. Two million pounds of hydrazine were used at Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Lab (SSFL) in the hills between the Simi and San Fernando valleys during the ’50s and ’60s. Smaller quantities are currently used at the site.

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UCLA found that Rocketdyne workers who had high hydrazine exposures were about twice as likely as other Rocketdyne employees who worked at the site to die from lung and other cancers. The study shows that 44 in 1,053 workers on "the Hill," who had concentrated contact with the compound, had died from lung cancer. That rate was twice as high as for the employees who had minor or no contact with the chemical, which has been found to be carcinogenic in lab animals and a "possible carcinogen" to humans.

Excessive deaths from cancers of the kidney, bladder, blood and lymphatic system were also observed, although the lung-cancer numbers were the most startling. The jeopardy of dying from one of these cancers was also highest among those who worked in the high-exposure positions during the 1960s, when Rocketdyne’s use of hydrazine was at its peak. But considering the various amounts of different types of toxic slop used on the test-stands, UCLA couldn’t determine absolutely that hydrazine was the cancer culprit.

"While we believe that something is going on with this group of workers, we don’t know for certain what caused the excessive cancer deaths," said Beate Ritz, a UCLA epidemiologist and co-investigator on the study. "Our best information is that it was hydrazine, but it could be something else related to rocket-engine testing. We do know there is an excessive number of cancer deaths among workers in the high-exposure category."

Researchers grouped 6,107 men, by job title, into categories of suspected hydrazine exposure. High-exposure employees included propulsion mechanics and technicians who were responsible for pumping the goo into test-stand rockets and fuel tanks — operations that allegedly resulted in frequent leaks.

For 50 years, Rocketdyne was in the forefront of America’s effort to win the Cold War, and the Santa Susana lab was its battlefield. On a 2,668-acre expanse littered with boulders and blanketed by chaparral lay a sprawling, semi-secret complex of concrete bunkers, rocket test pads and experimental nuclear reactors. The lab was used to supply our expanding arsenal of MX rockets designed to carry nukes and rocket engines for the space race. The Simi Valley facility has a well-documented history of problems, including a partial meltdown of a reactor core in 1959 and widespread radioactive and chemical contamination. Community concerns about the pollution in 1989 prompted local officials to establish an independent oversight panel charged with organizing an investigation of the health of Rocketdyne’s workers.

The six-year chemical study is the companion report to a UCLA radiation study released in September 1997. That report found that, while the overall cancer death rates at Rocketdyne are lower than that of the U.S. population as a whole (due to the "healthy worker" effect, which says that people who have jobs are generally healthier than those who do not), exposure to radiation at Rocketdyne creates health risks, at ionizing levels much lower than previously believed. "Government standards for worker-radiation limits allow the equivalent of 500 chest X-rays a year," said Dan Hirsch of the anti-nuclear Committee to Bridge the Gap. Hirsch is co-chair of the study’s oversight panel, appointed by the Environmental Protection Agency to provide input from scientific, community, government and union representatives. "Now we finally find out that it was not just the radiation workers who were in harm’s way," Hirsch said.

Prodded by the landmark results of the chemical report, the research team is angling for more information. "Since fewer than one-quarter of the workers in our study died by the end of the follow-up period, we need to continue following these workers in the future," posited Hal Morgenstern, a UCLAprofessor of epidemiology and the principal investigator for the study. "It would also be helpful to expand these future efforts to examine new cases of diagnosed cancers, rather than only examining cancer deaths."


Rocketdyne officials reacted to the UCLA study with all the warmth of Jerry Falwell greeting Tinky Winky. Steve Lafflam, the company’s top flack for safety, health and environmental affairs, dismissed the report as inadequate and flawed. Rocketdyne criticized the UCLA team for analyzing just two chemicals (the second was asbestos), not conferring with the company, not adequately taking smoking into account, and for using job titles as the only basis for estimating the workers’ probability of exposure.

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