Jack’s Story About Losing His Health After Working with Solvents and Other Toxic Chemicals at Los Alamos

 

Note from Alison Johnson: Jack’s story appeared in my 1999 book Casualties of Progress: Personal Histories from the Chemically Sensitive. His story is yet another indictment of the way in which the government and various companies expose their workers to toxic chemicals that make them sick and then do nothing to compensate them for the loss of their health and ability to work or lead a normal life.

 

In 1969 I started working in a leading research lab. All employees were given a complete physical before they began working there, and my physical indicated no problems. I was a very healthy person and had always been very active. I played basketball and baseball in high school and went hunting and fishing whenever I had a chance.

At the lab, I worked with a lot of solvents on a daily basis, particularly with trichloroethylene and freon, which were metal degreasers. I would pour fifteen to twenty gallons of these solvents into open tubs or baths that I used to clean off parts for the huge accelerator. Most of the parts were made of copper or stainless steel. I would wash them with the trichloroethylene and rinse them with freon because they had to be very clean. The exhaust system above the tubs did not work properly, so I was always breathing a lot of fumes.

We were given no special clothing or respirators, although we did have plastic face shields. The gloves we were given would work for only a few days before they expanded from contact with the solvents and would tear. I later found out they were not the proper gloves for handling the solvents I was working with. And some of the screws and other parts I had to clean were so small that I couldn’t handle them with gloves, so I would have to reach into the solvent tub with my bare hands.

We also used these solvents to wash out metal pipes that would be a few inches to a foot in diameter and up to twenty feet long. We would soak rags in the solvents and drag them through the pipes.  When we dragged them out the end of a pipe, we would get a strong smell from the vapors.

One of our other jobs was to use aerosol sprays to coat copper parts with an acrylic-type finish when they came out of the furnace. We weren’t given masks to wear, so of course we breathed in the mist that was floating through the air.  We used to wash our hands off with ethanol all the time.

I was sent to school to learn how to repair turbo mechanical pumps and cryogenic pumps and keep them running properly, so I was often asked to work on those pumps. They were installed in confined areas, and I was exposed to a lot of oil vapors in that work. The pumps generated so much heat that the section I worked in did not have to be heated in the winter, and this heat increased the oil vapors given off by the pumps.

Another one of my jobs was to work in the furnace facility, where I would do soldering and welding. That exposed me to vapors from lead and tin. I couldn’t avoid breathing the stuff. When loading the furnaces, we would use a fiber frax material to protect the parts. It was known as a “brother” to asbestos, and we could see the fibers flying through the air when we would cut it into pieces.

By 1972, about three years after I had started working at the lab, I was loaded with upper respiratory problems. I had lots of sore throats and sinus infections, and I had headaches like crazy.  Even today those symptoms still are a big problem. I had never had any headaches to speak of before I went to work in the lab and hardly ever got sick; I just had an occasional cold. At any rate, when I began getting sick so often, I started seeing doctors at the lab.  They treated my symptoms but never asked me anything about what materials I was working with. Even the private doctors I consulted never asked about my exposures at work. Since I was living and working in a company town, perhaps that’s not surprising.

By the early 1980s, my eyes would often hurt and get very red at work; my left eye in particular would swell up. My vision would also get blurry. I would frequently become dizzy and nauseated, and sometimes I would black out for a few seconds.  Around 1983, I developed terrible fatigue and insomnia. (Some nights I could only sleep for two or three hours.) I just didn’t have any energy.  When I told one doctor that I thought the solvents and other things I was working with might be making me sick, he said I was just imagining it.

I still didn’t quite realize the extent to which the work exposures were making me sick. Then one day I was putting three gallons of freon into a tub to wash some parts, and I got a terrible headache.  My eyes again became very red, and my vision started to blur.  That’s when I began to realize that the exposures to solvents and other chemicals in the lab were making me sick. 

One day while I was working with freon, the safety committee members came through making their rounds. I asked them if I could have a proper exhaust system in my work area because the materials were making me sick. They said an adequate exhaust system would be too expensive to install at that point, but maybe there would be one at some time in the future. They told me that I must be imagining that the solvents were bothering me and said the solvents I worked with were very safe to use and would not cause any harm. I explained that I had terrible headaches, was dizzy all the time, and sometimes would even black out for an instant. When I also pointed to my red eyes and told them about my cough and sore throat, one of them said I must just have a common cold. I replied that it was a cold that hadn’t gone away since 1972.

Eventually, around 1986, I was told that I had become sensitized to the solvents I was working with and should wear a mask. In 1988, they did install an exhaust system in the section where I was then working, but I was so sick by that point that nothing was going to help make the workplace tolerable for me.

By the late 1980s, I would sit up in bed almost every night at 2 or 3 am and cough for fifteen minutes. I had continual drainage problems. In May 1988, my private doctor requested that I be moved to a clean working environment free of chemical exposures. When the occupational medicine department and management assigned me to another area, they sent a letter to my new department stating that I shouldn’t be working with or around chemicals. But the new area I was assigned to was just as bad as the old one. My work area was in an electronics shop where people were soldering all the time, and I still worked with chemicals and with lots of diesel equipment. 

Finally, one day in late 1988, I was asked to work punching out holes in aluminum.  I had to use a cutting fluid, and I was working in a corner with no ventilation, even though my doctors’ orders had said that I was not supposed to be working around chemicals.  After twenty minutes, I went to my group leader and showed him how red my eyes were getting.  He said I should try using a fan to keep the vapors off, but of course that wasn’t going to help much.

At last, in December 1988 I was placed on medical leave because management was concerned that I might be a hazard to myself and co-workers. I couldn’t understand why they hadn’t worried about that in the early 1980s when I told them I was so dizzy and had such blurry vision that I had trouble walking on the catwalks that were five feet off the floor. The letter announcing the decision said that I had a very serious medical condition, but it was treatable.  The company doctor sent me to the company psychologist, who didn’t ask me anything about what materials I had been working with. She just kept wanting to know if I was having family problems.

I’ve had a CT scan that shows I have sinus damage and a CT scan that shows very dark areas on both sides of my brain. When the technician who performed the scan looked at the film, she said it looked like I had been in a terrible car accident.

A university did a work history on me in 1989. After the work history indicating all the solvent exposure was completed, it put my mind more at ease because I at last knew what was wrong with me. Then I said, rather naively, “Now we know what’s wrong with me, cure me,” but they told me there was no cure. They sent me to San Francisco to consult two leading doctors in long-term exposure to solvents. Their report indicated that I was indeed suffering from solvent exposure.

While I was still working, I would sometimes lose my sense of taste and smell at work, but then it would return. Four years ago I lost my sense of taste and smell again, and it has never returned.  Although I can no longer smell perfume and other fragrances, I have to be careful to avoid people wearing scented products because I still react to them, even if I don’t initially realize they are there.

I still suffer from a lot of joint pain in my ankles, knees, and fingers, and I continue to have respiratory problems, although they are slightly improved.  Fatigue, insomnia, eye pain, and blurred vision still bother me a lot.  

My health was badly damaged during the twenty years that I worked with toxic substances in that laboratory, but my former employer has done almost nothing to compensate me for the occupational illness I acquired there. I can no longer work because I am so sick, and I don’t receive much money under the company pension plan because the lab forced me to retire early.