Dying for Their Work
By Steven Higgs
It’s hard to imagine the man whose body has carried the highest levels of PCBs ever recorded on the planet as one of the lucky ones. But a former Westinghouse Electric Corp. worker and client of Bloomington, Indiana attorney David McCrea would seem to fit the definition.
“They tested the workers in 1977 for PCB blood levels,” McCrea said during a recent interview. “One worker tested 3,450 parts per billion in his blood. The background level is five.”
But despite his historic toxicological status, this particular worker is alive, which a September 2005 study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) says makes him a survivor. His coworkers are dying from brain and skin cancer.
“Among those working (more than) 90 days (in the Westinghouse plant), both melanoma and brain cancer were elevated, especially for women,” the study says.
Published in the September 2005 edition of the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the NIOSH study confirms the results of a 1992 study that analyzed Westinghouse worker mortality through 1984. It found “excess melanoma and brain cancer” in the 3,569 Westinghouse workers exposed to PCBs.
The 2005 study re-examined Westinghouse worker death rates through Dec. 31, 1998, adding 14 years of new data to the old. It adds: “Other studies of PCB-exposed individuals have found excess non-Hodgkins lymphoma, rectal cancer and liver, biliary tract, and gall bladder cancer.”
Westinghouse workers like McCrea’s client were exposed to PCBs—polychlorinated biphenyls—between 1957 and 1977 while assembling and testing electrical capacitors at the company’s Curry Pike plant. Capacitors are insulated canisters that store flowing electricity. They are most commonly seen atop light poles.
Congress banned the manufacture of PCBs in 1977 in response to evidence that they posed a significant public health threat. At that time, Westinghouse officials told Bloomington workers that PCBs were safe enough to eat on their morning cereal. A plant manager once immersed his arm in PCB liquids to demonstrate to the workers that they had nothing to fear.
McCrea’s client, one of dozens he has represented and hundreds he has spoken with since 1981, worked in an area where capacitors were tested with electrical currents and frequently exploded. In a sworn statement in 1995, a former engineer, who developed brain cancer, testified:
“These explosions would create fumes from burning components that would spread throughout the plant,” he said.
This engineer and a friend inspected failed capacitors to determine why they failed. The friend also developed brain cancer.
Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer classify PCBs as “probable human carcinogens,” the NIOSH report says. Since 1981, the National Toxicology Program has said PCBs can be “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.”
The same qualities that made PCBs ideal for insulating capacitors—the ability to withstand temperatures up to a couple thousand degrees without breaking down—have also made them among the most pervasive and persistent toxic chemicals in the chain of life.
PCBs are omnipresent in the environment and the human body. The “mean background PCB levels in adults range from 3.7 to 6.8 parts per billion,” according to an August 2000 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Congress did not require that the PCBs already in use be disposed of, however. The 2005 NIOSH study says “as many as 125,000 PCB transformers and 1.25 million PCB capacitors may still be in use.”
The new study acknowledges that 17 worker mortality reports on nine groups of workers occupationally exposed to PCBs have produced “inconsistent findings.” But its results are consistent with the 1992 study of Bloomington workers and others that have found higher-than-expected incidences of skin and brain cancers in PCB-exposed individuals.
And it did find women workers exposed at the Bloomington plant to be at greater risk. “Some interaction between estrogenic PCBs and hormones may contribute to higher risk for women,” the report says. “Because women have a higher percentage of adipose tissue, PCBs may be stored in their bodies longer.” PCBs tend to store in fat, and adipose tissue is a form of fatty tissue.
“In conclusion, we found evidence of an association between employment at this plant and melanoma and brain cancer mortality,” the report’s authors say.
McCrea says those conclusions jibe with his personal interactions with Westinghouse workers through the years. “I know many workers in the Bloomington Westinghouse capacitor plant and the Muncie Westinghouse transformer plant who have died from brain cancers,” he said.
Another of McCrea’s clients described the “swamp,” an area of the plant where he was assigned to work in 1972. “I wasn’t there over 30 seconds and I realized how it got that name,” he said. “The smell of the section just jumped out at you as you walked in the area. There was oil on the floor, oil on the walls. Everything you looked at was just greasy and oil-soaked. There was a smell of smoke in the air, and you could see smoke lingering.”
Among the Bedford resident’s jobs was filling the capacitors with PCB liquids and soldering them closed. When his blood tested at 3,450 parts per billion half a decade later, he asked what he should do. He was told, “Never give blood.”
McCrea said that response to his client and his severe health problems is reflective of the treatment workers have endured for the past three-plus decades. “The bottom line is this,” he said. “In Monroe County they’ve probably spent 200 or 300 million dollars cleaning up PCBs. They haven’t spent 10 cents clinically evaluating the workers.”
In a letter accompanying the NIOSH study’s release, McCrea noted that workers at the Westinghouse plant in Muncie—where they manufactured PCB-containing electrical transformers—have never had their health studied. “I think it is appropriate for the Board of Directors of Monsanto, Westinghouse (now Viacom), and General Electric to take responsibility for the morbidity and mortality of their workers, which would include compensation for those who have died and medical monitoring for the workers who are living and were exposed to PCBs.” The chance of this happening, he said: “zero...a snowball’s chance in July.”
“It boils down to social responsibility,” he said. “If they don’t find health problems, they don’t have to expend the funds to pay for them.” He cited the experience of one of his clients from the Muncie plant, on whose behalf he filed suit. “He sued Westinghouse directly and the Supreme Court of Indiana said, ‘You can’t sue Westinghouse because your exclusive remedy was the Occupational Disease Act,’” McCrea said. “And then, when he sued Monsanto, Monsanto blamed Westinghouse, whom the court said he couldn’t sue.”
His client was left in legal limbo, McCrea said. “He got whipsawed,” he said. “You can’t sue your employer, even if they intentionally poison you.”
Steven Higgs is the editor of the Bloomington Alternative. He can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.
—Counterpunch, March 4/5, 2006