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Who's Watching Your Genes.

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

April 24, 2001 -- A recently settled lawsuit pitting a railway company against its own employees could be the storyline for a sci-fi movie: A large company secretly performs genetic testing on some of its employees to determine if their workers are at risk of developing work-related injuries. Well, the story may be science, but it's not fiction.


Last year, David Escher of McCook, Neb., began to experience pain and numbness in his hands and fingers. He soon sought medical attention, but little did he know it was the beginning of an ordeal that experts say illuminates the darker possibilities in the brave new world of medical genetics.




McCook, who is a railroad maintenance worker for Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Company (BNSF), was diagnosed in August with carpal tunnel syndrome. The condition, caused by compression of nerves in the "tunnel" connecting the wrist and hand, leads to pain, numbness, and loss of strength. A local specialist told him the condition was likely related to his work and recommended surgery.


"It got to the point where, depending on what tools I was using, the pain was going all the way up my arm and waking me up at night," Escher tells WebMD. "The surgeon told me that, of course, it was work-related. It's not like you go to bed at night and not have it, then wake up in the morning and have it."


A date for surgery was set in January. Around Christmas, however, Escher received a curious holiday greeting from BNSF headquarters in Ft. Worth, Texas: A letter directing him to report for more extensive examinations of his complaint, including blood draws.


Seven vials of Escher's blood were drawn.


"All they told me was that they need more extensive testing," Escher says. "It looked to me like they were trying to find a doctor who would tell them what they wanted to hear."


In time, Escher learned that he was not the only BNSF employee with carpal tunnel syndrome required to undergo further tests, and that the tests were far from routine: The blood was being used by the company to do genetic testing.


In February, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a suit against BNSF on behalf of employees saying the company had violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. The company's genetic testing program "was carried out without the knowledge or consent of its employees, and at least one worker was threatened with termination for failing to submit a blood sample for a genetic test," according to the EEOC.


This week, in what is considered an uncommonly rapid turn-about, the suit was settled out of court, with BNSF admitting that it "tested certain employees for a genetic marker," according to the EEOC. Under the settlement, the company agreed to stop all further testing and analysis, and vowed not to take any adverse action against any person who opposed the genetic testing or who participated in EEOC's proceedings, according to the federal agency.


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