Gloversville is one of the “Glove Cities” of Fulton County, New York, so named for their prominent role in leather glove manufacturing and leather tanning in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In a three-year period in the 1980s, three “Glove City” tanners were diagnosed with testicular cancer. Their cases are summarized in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publication: “The first case occurred in 1982, whe n embryonal carcinoma was diagnosed in a 31-year-old worker who had begun work in leather tanning 13 years earlier. A second case of combined seminoma and embryonal carcinoma was diagnosed in 1984 in a 36-year-old worker who had begun work in this industry 19 years earlier. The third case of embryonal carcinoma was also diagnosed in 1984 in a 25-year-old worker who had worked in tanning for 8 years.”1
These three men had more in common than the type of testicular cancer and their employment history with Fulton County tanneries: They had all been employed by Gloversville’s Pan American Tannery during the same time period, on the same shift, and in the same area of the same department-the spray line of the leather-finishing department. The spray line involved conveyor belts that moved tanned hides past dye-depositing spray guns and then to swabbers who spread the dye onto the leather.
Two of the men were swabbers and the other was a foreman whose job included cleaning spray guns and working as swabber. This cancer cluster was first reported in the journal Lancet.
Stephen Levin and colleagues described the spray line: “The men had to lean over the hide, with their faces close to the leather. They wore no gloves and contamination of the skin and clothing by liquid dye was virtually continuous. During spray-line operations, a fine mist was present in the air, accompanied by a strong, solvent-like odor, which was said to be detectable up to 200 meters from the tannery. General ventilation was provided only by windows; these were usually kept open, except in winter.”2
Why did these men develop testicular cancer? Was it related to their job, or were the similarities in their work histories simply a coincidence?
After all, tannery work was a common occupation in Fulton County, so even if testicular cancer were to occur at a “normal” rate, it is not a surprise that tanners in the county would be affected. It is usually not possible to determine with certainty the cause of a given person’s cancer, but a partial answer to the cause question comes from statistical analyses that showed the testicular cancer rate among Pan American finishing department workers to be significantly greater than the expected rate, which was derived from actual testicular cancer rates in males from upstate New York. If their cancers were related to their jobs at the tannery, did these men have other risk factors that increased their chances of getting cancer? After all, there were many men employed in their department who did not develop testicular cancer. If it was job related, what chemicals or other work conditions were responsible? This question is nearly impossible to answer on a case-by-case basis. The men had been exposed to many chemicals, and as a further complication, two of the men had worked previously on spray lines at other tanneries.
In the Levin report, speculation surrounded the solvent dimethylformamide (DMF). One of the reasons for singling out DMF was because it had been suspected in other testicular cancer clusters, including two at aircraft maintenance facilities. Suspicion is not proof, however, and the cause of testicular cancer in these men remains uncertain.
Testicular cancer risks and causes
Testicular cancer most likely occurs as the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors, but the causes are not yet known.
Environmental factors suspected of playing a role in testicular cancer development include those of the intrauterine environment to which a male is exposed during fetal life.
Some occupations, such as firefighting, appear to increase the risk of testicular cancer development.
Established risk factors for testicular cancer are cryptorchidism and having a family member with testicular cancer. Also, men who have had cancer in one testicle are at increased risk of developing cancer in the other testicle.
Testicular cancer rates are higher in some parts of the world than others. In the United States, white men are at greater risk of testicular cancer than African American men.
Kathleen M. Verville, Ph.D.
Donna Bozzone, Ph.D.,
Professor of Biology
Saint Michael’s College
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Epidemiologic and Reports Testicular Cancer in Leather Workers-Fulton County, New York,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 38, 7 (1989): 111-114.
2. S. M. Levin, D. B. Baker, P. J. Landrigan, S. V. Monaghan, E. Frumin, M. Braithwaite, and W. Towne, “Testicular Cancer in Leather Tanners Exposed to Dimethylformamide (letter),” Lancet 2, 8568 (1987): 1153.
3. A. Petterson, L. Richiardi, A. Nordenskjold, M. Kaijser, and O. Akre, “Age of Surgery for Undescended Testis and Risk of Testicular Cancer,” The New England Journal of Medicine 356, 18 (2007): 1835-1841.
4. C. Myrup, et al., “Correction of Cryptorchidism and Testicular Cancer (correspondence),” The New England Journal of Medicine 357 (2007): 825-827.