Anti-Crime Tool Implicated as Cancer Cause
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The chemical benzidine, used by crime labs to detect traces of blood, is suspected of causing cancer among several forensic scientists.
Once a textile dye, benzidine used to be wiped or sprayed on walls, floors and other surfaces to highlight telltale bloodstains for use as evidence in criminal cases. Its use has been cut drastically since restrictions were imposed by the federal government after benzidine was linked to bladder and liver cancer more than a decade ago.
But the cancer often doesn’t appear until 15 to 20 years after exposure, and many of the approximately 3,000 active and retired crime lab workers nationwide blame benzidine for their cancer.
Among them is retired Los Angeles police Sgt. Reed McLaughlin, who spent 25 years examining crime scenes.
″We didn’t have to deal with wife beaters and robbers. We thought we were safe,″ McLaughlin said of his job.
″I think about how little we knew then about these chemicals, how dangerous they really were, and I just feel like I was used,″ said McLaughlin, 67, who now lives in Roseburg, Ore.
McLaughlin lost his bladder to cancer last year and says statistics give him a 40 percent chance of living two more years.
″I think the fact that bladder cancer could pop out in anybody that used it has crossed everybody’s mind,″ Ron Bridgemon, head of the Arizona state crime lab in Tucson, told the Los Angeles Times.
Bridgemon is president of the 250-member American Society of Crime Lab Directors.
″I actually had a tube of benzidine break in my bare hand once,″ said Richard Janelli who retired from the Nassau County, N.Y. police.
He has had nearly a dozen malignant tumors removed from his bladder since 1973.
″If I would have known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it,″ Janelli said.
Benzidine, a white powder, was mixed with mild acid or alcohol and wiped or sprayed on stains believed to be blood. Bloody fingerprints and other traces, even as faint as one part per 300,000 parts of water, showed a bright, aqua blue color.
But in 1973, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, citing the cancer link, ordered people who handle the chemical to use respirators and wear protective clothing. Use of benzidine as a dye is all but over, but some criminalists still prefer it to its replacement, a chemical called phenolphthalein.
The state crime lab in Kingston, R.I., where benzidine is still used, lost a $75,000 jury award in 1979 to a state prison inmate who contended he was afraid of developing cancer after the chemical was wiped on his skin after a prison knifing.
″I still use it myself occasionally,″ said the lab’s director, David DeFanti. ″I see nothing wrong with it. No one is this office has ever had any problems, to my knowledge.″