Occidental Exposures: Gary’s Story
by George C. Glasser
Gary Pittman’s first and last job was working for the Occidental Chemical Corporation’s phosphoric acid factories in Hamilton County, Florida. Gary was 18 and in excellent health when he started to work as a sample man in the analytical laboratory of the corporation’s Suwannee River Plant. He rose to supervising one-third of Occidental’s Swift Creek plant, earning about $50,000 a year.
Today, Gary is unable to work. He suffers from autoimmune disorders, toxic myopathy, chronic obstructive lung disease with emphysema, chronic bronchitis, blood disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome, liver dysfunctions, polyarthritis, swelling of feet and lower legs, muscle weakness, cardiac arrhythmia, memory loss and reactive depression. He walks with a waddling gait and suffers dizziness. The diagnosis: Toxic Brain Syndrome.
While Gary and his coworkers worked amid toxic, corrosive fumes, Occidental Chemical’s corporate elite sat safely in air-conditioned offices seven miles from the factory.
Sometimes, the concentrated airborne acidic cocktails at the Occidental plants would eat the paint off cars and etch windshields. Secretaries sent to the plant on errands complained of their pantyhose being dissolved.
Through the years, Occidental’s management assured everyone that they were only being exposed to harmless chemicals. The truth was that both the employees and the nearby population were being exposed to highly toxic chemicals and radioactive pollution.
A History of Hazards
In anticipation of a 20 percent increase in the global demand for super-phosphate fertilizer, chemical corporations have dumped more than $10 billion into phosphoric acid and phosphate mining in the state of Florida. Along with orange juice, phosphoric acid and super-phosphate fertilizer are Florida’s primary exports.
The adverse environmental and health effects of phosphoric acid production have been well-documented since the 1970’s. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set standards for exposure to the industry’s phosphate pollutants and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established strict safety requirements for workers. But to the author’s knowledge, neither the EPA nor the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has ever commissioned any substantive health-safety studies on the risks of exposure to pollutants resulting from phosphoric acid production.
Gypsum stacks piled high with production wastes, exhaust from cooling stacks and wastewater ponds are the primary local source s of air and groundwater pollutants, particularly hydrogen fluoride. Hydrogen fluoride combines with water to produce hydrofluoric acid, the most corrosive acid known. Hydrofluoric acid will react with most anything – including glass – to form fluorides.
According to a 1987 article in the Florida Scientist by the late Howard Moore, in the presence of moisture, a series of reactions between suspended solids and hydrogen fluoride can create pollutants that can be blown hundreds of miles from their source.
These airborne fluorides can be very reactive. When inhaled, many fluoride salts react with moist lung tissue, breaking down into hydrofluoric acid and other components. Inside the lungs, hydrofluoric acid burns tiny holes in the tissue and deposits silica and toxic metals at the site.
Phyllis Mullenix, a pioneer researcher on the neurotoxic effects of fluorides, has said that inhaling toxic fluoride compounds is “like giving them running shoes.” As soon as they enter a living system, they begin to cause damage.
According to Dr. Gary Lyman of the University of South Florida Medical Center, people living near phosphate fertilizer plants are twice as likely to develop lung cancer and osteoblastic leukemia. While these high cancer rates among people living near phosphoric acid plants have been noted, little has been said about workers and their families. These workers are at ground zero. They are the ones that have to go into acid reaction vessels filled with toxic fumes and scour radioactive gypsum scale from filters and walls.
This scale is so radioactive (up to 100,000 picocuries of radium per gram) that the only landfill in the country that accepts naturally occurring radioactive wastes will not accept it. Instead, the radioactive wastes are buried in the gypsum stacks or dumped into holding ponds.
Crystallized, radioactive silica tetrafluoride build up is so hard and encrusted, it has to be chipped away with jack hammers. They also had to beat the water circulation pipes with hammers and run over them with trucks to dislodge the silica tetrafluoride. This maintenance was only done when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the EPA or OSHA had given notification that an inspection of the facilities was about to take place.
Industry’s Pollution: America’s Fluoridation
The fluorosilicic acid produced inside a phosophorous plant’s pollution scrubbers is sold as a water fluoridation agent. Despite the fact that more than 50 percent of US cities that fluoridate use some form of this industrial waste in municipal drinking water, neither the EPA nor the Public Health Service can produce one clinical study vouching for the safety of the substance.
The plants also produce the sulfuric acid that is essential to phosphoric acid production. When the acid is mixed with finely ground phosphate rock, it produces vapors that contain heavy metals, sulfates, fluorosilicates, hydrogen fluoride and other contaminants. Uncontrolled releases of toxic hydrogen sulfide gas are common in the vicinity of these plants.
In 1995, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) required all phosphate fertilizer producers to install vinyl lining under new gypsum stacks. The action was taken to prevent new gypsum stacks from leaching contaminants into the already polluted local aquifers. Unfortunately, the vinyl liners were only a feel good measure as they do nothing to prevent runoff from the stacks or to prevent air pollution.
The EPA originally forced manufacturers to install pollution scrubbers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but both the EPA and FDEP have tended to turn a blind eye to violations.
Phosphate rock contains Uranium-238. During the post-WW2 and Cold War eras, 75 percent of the uranium oxide used to produce nuclear weapons and fuel came from several Florida phosphate fertilizer plants. EPA’s laxity may be a leftover attitude from the days when phosphate fertilizer plants were a national security asset.
Pittman’s Day in Court
In 1997,. Pittman and seven other former Occidental employees filed a suit against the Occidental Chemical Corporation for battery, fraud and deceit, anti-pollution statutes and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Pittman’s deposition reads like a 20-year sentence in Hell. “When I first started working for Occidental,” Pittman recalled, “safety considerations were basically nonexistent. The only thing we were required to wear were safety glasses. Gloves, respirators and dust masks were not furnished.
“I remember one incident when I was assigned the task of cleaning the filter hood and the pollution scrubber. Powdery fluorosilicate dust was everywhere. As we were cleaning, the fluorosilicate dust covered us, and it was very hot; we were sweating profusely. When the fluorosilicate dust mixed with the perspiration, it would form fluorosilicic acid on the skin and blister us if we did not wash it off.
“I remember going home after one episode in the pollution scrubber. I started coughing and choking. My eyes started to burn. I realized that my clothes were fuming. I rolled the window down in my truck so I could see to drive home. Reaching home, I removed my clothes and gave them to my wife to wash. Well, the only things that came out of the washing machine intact were the zipper and a couple of buttons.”
“It wasn’t uncommon to develop acid sores, rashes and blisters after those jobs. It also wasn’t uncommon to cough up blood after breathing the fluorosilicates and other fumes.”
The fluorosilicates found in pollution scrubbers contain heavy metals and radionuclides including radium-226, radon-222 and uranium-238. Silicon tetra fluoride is a highly toxic fluoride compound. The autopsy of a man who died from several minutes’ exposure to concentrated fumes at a phosphate fertilizer plant revealed a coating of silica on his lungs. The cause of death, however, was fluorine poisoning.
Gary also has emphysema and classic symptoms of silicosis. In the phosphate industry, the older workers refer to the condition as “chemical pneumonia.”
Most manufacturers require employee urine tests to track levels of chemical- exposure as a basic risk-management protection against future lawsuits. But in his 20 years of working for Occidental, Gary never had a urine test, even when he became ill.
In 1987, according to Gary who was then a supervisor at the facility, Occidental shut down a pollution scrubber, stating that it was no longer needed. Gary’s claim has been substantiated by fellow employees. For almost three years – in violation of state regulations and the US Clean Air Act – Occidental operated with the scrubber shut down to save the cost of maintenance and electric power to the pumps. As a result, according to Pittman, the entire population of Hamilton County and surrounding North Florida was exposed to toxic emissions. Occidental’s workers were exposed to even higher levels.
Poisoned, Fired and Ignored
With each episode of illness, Gary would leave work and his health would improve. But after returning to work, the symptoms would return – a textbook scenario of exposure to workplace toxins.
By 1993, after almost 21 years of workplace exposure, Gary was totally incapacitated. Unable to walk up a flight of stairs, he was laid off by Occidental management. Pittman claims that he was never offered a less taxing position and was not allowed to return to work.
None of the doctors treating Gary ever explored his workplace exposure to carbon tetrachloride, barium chlorides, hydrogen fluoride, fluorosilicates, sulfates, potassium cyanide, chemical solvents or other damaging and carcinogenic chemicals. Early diagnoses of Pittman’s condition included degenerative muscle disease, AIDS, Lyme disease and nonspecific myopathy.
Gary was never tested for industrial toxics until he visited the Environmental Health Center in Dallas, Texas. The Center diagnosed toxic brain syndrome after reviewing Gary’s previous medical records and a brain spectrograph that showed neurological damage typical of exposure to neurotoxins and heavy metals.
Numerous Occidental employees all suffer from similar medical problems – including two other plaintiffs in the lawsuit. According to Gary, employees in the processing plants “seemed to stay sick all the time. It was like they had a cold or the flu all the time. They were always taking over-the-counter medications so they could keep working.” He names people with heart arrhythmias and symptoms of toxic brain syndrome, and stomach, lung, brain and bone cancers, leukemia and benign brain tumors.
Employees were also exposed to contaminants in the plant’s drinking water. Gary suspected that wastewater from the holding ponds was leaching into the aquifer. Fluoride levels in the water were found to be 15 to 17 parts per million -. four times the EPA’s permissible level. Phosphoric acid levels in the water were also very high. The drinking water was so laden with corrosive chemicals that the metal pipes eventually crumbled.
The drinking water became so contaminated that the employees complained it was undrinkable. A reverse osmosis system was installed but contaminants soon clogged the system and rendered it ineffective. After that, many employees brought their own water, or drank soft drinks.
A complaint written by Pittman’s attorneys alleges that Occidental failed to provide and/or destroyed product-data safety sheets and removed warning labels on toxic chemicals to avoid purchasing adequate safety equipment. Occidental has made no public comment regarding this complaint.
Pittman states that ventilation in the work areas was poor and that safety equipment often failed. “We poured all sorts of chemicals down an open drain in the floor. Sometimes they would start boiling and fuming. All those noxious fumes were recirculated by the air conditioning system. We were continuously breathing that stuff. Back then, we didn’t know any better.”
The complaint submitted by two Jacksonville, Florida law firms – Coker, Myres, Schickel, Sorenson and Higgenbottom and Boyer, Tanzler and Boyer – states: “Not only did the Defendants fail to provide adequate and operational ventilation, but also, to further reduce costs, the Defendants, even on occasion when the toxic fume stacks were fully operational, simply turned them off.”
Occidental ignored the most fundamental recommendations for worker safety with regard to toxic chemicals and fluorine as spelled out in the Public Health Service/Centers for Disease Control publication, Occupational Diseases: A Guide to their Recognition: “Attention should be given promptly to any burns from fluorine compounds due to absorption of the fluorine at the burn site.” Gary and his coworkers were never afforded any medical attention nor were they provided with adequate protective equipment.
Of the eight original plaintiffs, two have died: One, a nonsmoker, died of lung and liver cancer;the other died of bone cancer.
“I read in the paper that studies… showed that Hamilton County has the highest cancer rate in Florida. Columbia and Suwannee Counties also have very high cancer rates compared to other counties in Florida. Those counties are right next to Hamilton,” Pittman relates. “I wondered, why here? Hamilton County is basically a rural, farming county. You would think the air is less contaminated. The overall environment is cleaner. You would think the people would be healthier than in the big cities. The only thing here that is not in some of the other counties is Occidental Chemical Company.
Pittman thought about reporting the illegal emissions to Florida Department of Environmental Protection, OSHA and the EPA. But, he decided, what good would it do to report the problem “to the people who already know what is going on. They know people are sick and dying because of Occidental. If they were really concerned and cared about the public, they would have done something about Occidental a long time ago.”
Gary Owen Pittman knows that he is going up against a mammoth organization with much to lose. The parent company of Occidental Chemical Corporation’s parent, Hooker Chemical Corporation, is no stranger to litigation. Hooker was responsible for Love Canal. (Both companies are owned by the parent company Occidental Petroleum Corp.)
“It’s hard for us to trust anyone after what we’ve been through. I know Occidental has the power to buy and intimidate people. They could even cause my lawyers problems. They give money to political candidates, and I imagine they help the judges who think their way to get elected. All of us know that we’re alone and can’t depend on anyone, except one another.”
George Glasser is a Florida-based writer. His article “Fluoride and the Phosphate Connection” appeared in the Summer 1998 Earth Island Journal.
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