Twist of fate: Industry defender switched sides when diagnosed with cancer

Corporate executive James Butler worked at this beryllium plant in Reading, Pa., while defending the industry against claims that beryllium caused cancer. When he developed lung cancer, he filed a workers' compensation claim and blamed beryllium for his illness.
Corporate executive James Butler worked at this beryllium plant in Reading, Pa., while defending the industry against claims that beryllium caused cancer. When he developed lung cancer, he filed a workers' compensation claim and blamed beryllium for his illness.

For more than 30 years, James Butler was a top beryllium executive and one of the industry's biggest defenders.

One of his jobs: Fight the notion that beryllium causes lung cancer.

So for years he assured customers, the public, and government officials that they had nothing to worry about.

Then Mr. Butler himself developed lung cancer. When he did, he made a stunning turnabout: He blamed beryllium.

"When you get a lung cancer, it's quite a convincer," Mr. Butler said at his workers' compensation hearing in 1988 in Pennsylvania.

DEADLY ALLIANCE: How government and industry chose weapons over workers

Mr. Butler won a $30,000 award but lost his struggle with cancer. He had numerous radiation treatments and eventually had to use an oxygen tank to breathe. He died in 1990 at age 76.

His eldest son, James Jr., now wishes the federal government would have implemented something his father spent years fighting against: tougher rules on beryllium.

"It would have been good if they would have taken stronger control of the uses and processing of the material," he says.

Mr. Butler's turnabout was a blow to the industry, which has vigorously fought the belief that beryllium causes cancer.

Scientists have believed for 50 years that beryllium causes cancer in animals, but it wasn't until 1993 that the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified beryllium as a human carcinogen. Since then, companies have been required to label their products accordingly.

The industry has complied, but it still maintains beryllium does not cause cancer in people.

Mr. Butler's reversal makes that argument more difficult.

After all, he was not just anybody. He was a leader in the industry, an executive with the Beryllium Corporation, a Reading, Pa., firm now known as NGK Metals Corp.

A graduate of Yale Law School and the son of a prominent New Orleans banker, Mr. Butler joined the Beryllium Corporation as assistant to the president. For the next three decades he was involved in the most sensitive issues: lawsuits from workers, inquiries from the press, threats from regulators.

In fact, when federal regulators wanted to tighten controls on beryllium in the 1970s, largely because of a cancer concern, Mr. Butler helped orchestrate the industry's defense.

After a long and contentious debate, including three weeks of public hearings in Washington, Mr. Butler and the industry won.

A few years later, in 1986, Mr. Butler noticed his voice was failing. Tests revealed the worst: lung cancer.

Mr. Butler blamed his exposure to beryllium dust, even though he spent most of his time at work in offices and away from the huge dust-generating machines on the plant floor.

But as he testified at his workers' compensation hearing, production workers often traipsed through the office area, leaving behind large amounts of white beryllium dust. "So there was obvious contamination," he said.

Those acquainted with Mr. Butler were surprised by his reversal.

"I thought, 'Jesus Christ - after all these years - this guy says beryllium doesn't cause cancer in humans, and now he's trying to collect on it,' " says Dr. David Groth, a cancer researcher who has pushed for tighter beryllium controls.

Perhaps the person most surprised was Martin Powers.

He was one of Mr. Butler's closest friends and his counterpart at Brush Wellman Inc., the country's leading beryllium producer. Like Mr. Butler, Mr. Powers had argued for years that beryllium was not a carcinogen.

Mr. Powers is now retired but remains a paid consultant for Brush Wellman. He says his old friend told him he didn't want to blame beryllium for his cancer but felt he had to - he needed the money.

"He apologized for what he was doing, but said he had no alternative except to file a workman's compensation claim for his injury because he saw no other way to avoid financial disaster for his family."

Mr. Butler, he says, agonized over the decision.

"He did recognize what effect this would have on the industry as a whole and did recognize that I was still there defending the bastion, and I would have to deal with that. And he was man enough to come and apologize."

But was Mr. Butler really in financial trouble?

At his workers' compensation hearing, Mr. Butler testified that insurance was paying all of his medical bills, a transcript from the hearing shows.

And Mr. Butler's son, a 52-year-old from Douglassville, Pa., says he had no indication that his parents needed money.

"They lived in the same house for 35 years. The house was paid for. No debt - anything. There wasn't anything like that."

Granted, he says, his father was a private man who may have kept his troubles to himself. He rarely even spoke about how he had denounced the very product he had spent his life defending.

"He only said one thing - a year before he died - about hindsight being 20/20."