Jeff’s Story: An Extreme Exposure to Toxic Chemicals in an Industrial Plant Wrecks His Life

 

The following story appears in my 1999 book Casualties of Progress: Personal Histories from the Chemically Sensitive. I spoke with Jeff last year, two decades after his fateful exposure, and he still remains sick and unable to work. It is indeed infuriating to read his story and see how a major corporation can ride roughshod over the rights of a worker whom it is exposing to dangerous chemicals and never even help them get workers’ comp when their health is destroyed.

My problems began from working in an eight-foot deep concrete pit at the company where I had been employed for four years. My company was a subsidiary of one of the largest corporations in the country. Both my brother and I got the worst of the exposure. One other person got exposed but to a lesser degree. The pit contained a large milling machine we were leveling, and there was another little pit in the corner of the main pit that was filled with coolant. My brother and I were the first to go down in the main pit to prepare the machine bed for leveling.  After about fifteen minutes, we both felt like we were drunk, and we reported this to our foreman. He reported it to Bob Mason (not his real name) in the health and safety office, who informed our foreman there was nothing down there and told us to keep working. We set up fans and blowers to try to air out the pit.  

We worked in the pit for several weeks, getting sicker and sicker all the time.  Some of our symptoms were headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, confusion, anger, skin rashes, ringing ears, pain in our joints, twitching eyes, and vision problems. We finally talked Bob Mason into providing respirators for us. He wouldn’t provide them “on the record,” however. He said he would leave them on the table, and we could take them. At first the respirators seemed to help us spend longer periods in the pit, but after a few days, they seemed to lose their effectiveness.  

At this point we were talking about quitting our jobs, so another employee, who was not from the health and safety office, decided to do a cleanup of the pit.  The first thing that was done was to suck out the coolant pit with a vacuum truck. The truck operator never even went into the pit. During this operation, I went over to the edge of the pit for five minutes and got extremely sick. The guy operating the vacuum truck said the coolant was hot. I felt the hose to confirm it.  He said it may have been a chemical reaction or a faulty circulating pump. I noticed the truck operator was absent the next day. A maintenance man worked on the leaking pipes of the suck truck the very next day, and he got very sick. The men in the crew that cleaned up the pit were also telling us they felt sick. While the pit was getting cleaned up, my brother and I were working in another area. We noticed our symptoms were getting worse anytime we came into contact with any cleaners or oils, things that had never given us a problem before.

After the cleanup, my brother and I went back to the pit, and we soon started deteriorating even further because there were still chemical fumes in the pit. At this point we said enough is enough and packed up our tools. Our action caused Bob Mason to finally come down from the health and safety office (for the first time, I might add) to see what was going on.  He decided to get some samples and actually got me to go into the pit to get them. We left work in hopes that our health would return, but it never did and it’s been over five years since that exposure.  Both my brother and I have been diagnosed with MCS.  

I tried to see a doctor who is an industrial hygienist at the medical school of our state university. He asked me to get a list of the chemicals I had been exposed to so that I could bring it to my first appointment. I finally got Bob Mason to give me a list of the chemicals I was exposed to, and the list included 1,1,1-trichloroethylene, toluene, butylated hydrotoluene, and traces of methylene chloride. This list, however, was based on tests of chemical levels that were performed after the coolant had been sucked out of the pit. I’ve never been able to find out what chemicals were in the coolant because that’s a trade secret. The health and safety office always claimed that there had been no tests done before the coolant was sucked out. I knew differently because one day prior to the cleanup I had seen a man taking samples in the pit. I went out to the  plant parking lot and saw a van clearly marked with the name of a chemical testing company. Later on, however, the health and safety office denied that samples had been taken before the coolant was pumped out.

At any rate, when I made the phone call to Bob Mason to get the list of chemicals I had been exposed to, I made the mistake of telling him that I had an appointment to see a physician at the university medical school. He asked me the physician’s name, and he said he knew him. One hour after I finished talking to Bob Mason, the medical school called me and pushed my appointment back another month. That still seems like a strange coincidence.

At this point I called OSHA, and they recommended a physician by the name of Dr. Smith (physicians’ names have been changed). I initially saw his assistant, Dr. Walker, who seemed pretty good at recording my symptoms and workplace exposures. When I returned two weeks later, I was still quite ill.  I told Dr. Walker about my problems driving, entering most buildings, and encountering substances like diesel, paint, cleaning products, or perfume.  I was unable to work in this condition.  There were about five doctors in the room on this occasion, including Dr. Smith.

Looking back, I wonder if my case wasn’t a hot potato because I worked for such a major corporation. Dr. Walker said that my symptoms were consistent with exposure to the chemicals found in the pit, and he said he would support my claim to workers’ comp. Dr. Smith was obviously not happy with Dr. Walker’s assessment of my case. He gave Dr. Walker an extremely angry look and said my symptoms should be all cleared up in a few weeks.

I returned to the clinic a month later because my symptoms were still bothering me.  At this point I saw only Dr. Smith.  He examined me and said I was fine.  I was feeling extremely sick from the ride there and from being in the office and was actually shaking quite badly.  I said, “What do you mean, I’m fine?  Look at me!”  At this point he suggested that I see another doctor for neuropsych testing. That doctor said I had MCS. 

Nevertheless, workers’ comp kept sending me to doctors who would say I was OK.  This eventually led to me getting kicked off comp.  As it stands now, I am unable to work and it looks like I may be like this for quite a bit longer, judging from the past five years.  It’s been a constant battle since I had the exposure in that pit.

I finally got a lawyer to try to help me get workers’ comp, but that turned out to be a disaster. During the hearing, I had to watch the judge help the workers’ comp lawyer ask this question or that question.  My lawyer just sat there like a lump taking it all in while I was getting sicker and sicker on the stand because of the chemical exposures in the hearing room. He didn’t make objections or do anything to help me win my case. As a result, I got removed from workers’ comp. 

Later I began to read about my law firm in the newspapers because the state attorney general’s office raided the firm and seized their files. One newspaper article said my law firm had been indicted on 82 counts of insurance fraud, motor vehicle insurance fraud, larceny, attempted tax evasion, and conspiracy. My lawyers just told me that the government was out to get them because they were helping injured workers, and unfortunately I accepted their explanation. They said they couldn’t handle my case any longer, but they set up a meeting between me and another lawyer who came to their office to talk with me. He agreed to handle my appeal, but after that day I never could reach him. I called repeatedly, left messages on his answering machine, and wrote to him. He never replied. Finally, after about eight months I succeeded in talking with him, and at that point he told me that the statute of limitations on my case had just run out. To this day I still wonder what was going on behind the scenes.  

It’s really discouraging when TV shows and radio shows and articles try to portray MCS patients as crazy. I know that may affect the way some of my friends view me. I know how silly I look wearing that stupid, uncomfortable mask when I go some place where there are strong chemicals. We need definite tests to shed some light on MCS.  I don’t like being treated like a nut case when my health has been wrecked by my exposure to those toxic chemicals in the pit.