Here's an innovation that could help resolve disputes between insurers and workers about whether exposure to a particular toxic chemical actually caused a worker to suffer a disabling disease or injury. It's kind of a genetic fingerprint test, but only much more accurate than fingerprint analysis.
Dr. Bruce Gillis from the University of Illinois' College of Medicine used DNA technology to show whether a worker developed a particular cellular toxic response from exposure to a chemical like benzene, a known carcinogen.
If the exposure is toxic, Gillis showed, the affected cells release special proteins called cytokines. Those cytokines have a unique DNA profile and only appear when the specific chemical caused particular cellular damage.
Exposure alone may not produce this particular toxic response. Gillis' test could have 100 percent certainty.
The implications could be significant. For example, in a recent case, a worker alleged that exposure to benzene caused him to develop cancer. The worker was tested with the new procedure, and it was found that there was no evidence of a toxic reaction from the benzene exposure.
The insurer, Liberty Mutual, saved more than $2 million in treatment and possible legal costs.
Or, had the test found toxic benzene exposure, the insurer could have settled the case quickly, getting the worker appropriate treatment and also reducing possible legal costs.
Los Angeles attorney Neal Jardine of Zurawsky Jardine and Houston used the benzene test in another workers' comp case, successfully defending an insurer against a claim of cancer caused by benzene and saving, he estimates, his insurance client more than $1 million.
Gillis, a toxicologist and doctor, explained that the testing is unique to each potential toxic chemical.
Tests have been developed for benzene and two other compounds, although individual tests could need to be developed for hundreds more.
Currently, the testing is expensive. For benzene, an individual test could cost as much as $12,000.
However, if testing becomes more common, the price could decline. An obvious application would be to develop a test for asbestos. Such a test could eliminate fraudulent lawsuits.
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September 15, 2007
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