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Hanford witness faced lawsuit

A doctor testifying for Hanford contractors that people exposed to low doses of radiation from the nuclear facility are unlikely to get thyroid cancer was sued for unethical conduct in a Chicago hospital study, according to attorneys for Hanford downwinder Shannon Rhodes in the ongoing trial in U.S. District Court.

Dr. Arthur B. Schneider, an endocrinologist and researcher at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago, testified late Thursday and Friday morning for Hanford contractors E.I. duPont de Nemours and General Electric Co.

Schneider, who produced a 2004 report on Rhodes’ Hanford exposure for the defendants, told the jury that a recent “pooled analysis” of people who got thyroid cancer after exposure to external radiation did not show a risk below 10 rads. Shannon Rhodes’ Hanford dose is an estimated mean 6.9 rads.

“You cannot say there is no risk below this level (10 rads). But if there is a risk, it’s very small,” Schneider said.

In cross-examination Thursday, plaintiff’s lawyer David Breskin, of Seattle, zeroed in on Schneider’s role as the principal investigator for an external radiation study at Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital of 4,296 people exposed as children to X-rays for enlarged tonsils from 1939 to 1960.

The National Institutes of Health provided about $2.5 million for the study between 1974 and 2003, Schneider said. It showed “strong evidence” of a connection between X-ray treatment and various thyroid problems, including thyroid cancer, according to the federal grant application.

Breskin accused Schneider of failing to reveal in letters to the former patients that his research had already detected a link between the X-rays and an increased incidence of thyroid disease.

“I don’t recall the contents” of the letters to prospective study subjects, Schneider responded.

The hospital was sued in 1999 for “fraudulent concealment” by two former patients, Joel Blaz and Frances Lauer, who had been X-rayed as children, Breskin told the jury. Schneider said he was dismissed from the lawsuit.

“You were dismissed only after you settled the case. Your attorneys tried to get the claims thrown out and the court refused to do so,” Breskin said.

In 1981, Blaz received a letter from Schneider, who described the study as a look at the long-term health implications of childhood radiation treatments. Schneider didn’t mention in the letter that a cancer risk had already been found, the U.S. District Court for the Northern Division of Illinois said in a Nov. 10, 1999, opinion.

“Dr. Schneider … was not entitled to use the information he had acquired about the risk to former patients for his own professional advancement without warning them of the risks which his own research had suggested that the hospital’s treatment had created for them,” the opinion says.

After objections from defense attorneys, U.S. District Judge William F. Nielsen told the jury that Schneider’s lawsuit was irrelevant to the Hanford case, which centers on causation: whether Rhodes’ radiation dose from Hanford emissions in the 1940s (when she was a young child living on a Palouse farm) was sufficient to cause her cancer.

Nielsen’s admonition prompted another argument between the lawyers after the jury had been excused Friday.

Breskin said he objected to Nielsen’s remarks to the jury dismissing the relevance of Schneider’s conduct in the X-ray study.

“We have a right to impeach him … that should be allowed to be considered by the jury,” Breskin said.

Breskin was trying to mislead the jury, said lead defense attorney Kevin Van Wart.

“He knew this plaintiff (Blaz) didn’t have thyroid disease. Mr. Breskin tried to imply otherwise,” Van Wart said.

Nielsen said he will deal with the issue next week when he gives instructions to the jury. Final arguments in Rhodes’ case are scheduled for Monday.