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GM's Toxic Legacy

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General Motors Leaves a Toxic Time Bomb for America--and the World

April 27th 2009

Energy / Environment - Toxic Waste Site
Toxic Waste Site in Michigan

GM's assets are toxic. But that toxicity is not limited to financial health. The poisonous legacy of General Motors will be carried by its workers in their bodies for the rest of their lives.

Working in factories like those in America’s auto industry is unlike working for a bank, a grocery store, an office, utility company or most other none toxic industries. The potential for close and continuous exposure in these auto factories to dangerous toxic elements is far greater than these other jobs. That is why United Auto Workers leaders over the last fifty years negotiated good healthcare benefits for workers and retirees.

More than just Detroit, the auto industry includes many essential manufacturing and parts factories across America that supply them. So many industrial towns and cities have depended upon these factories for the jobs and the tax base to support local governments and the services they provide. Concurrently, the workers in these factories have trusted their employers, unions and government health and safety agencies to protect them from toxic chemicals, pollution and similar hazards of a lethal work environment.

Has this trust been deserved? Could it be possible that the overseeing powers ignored or overlooked toxic issues in favor of economic issues regardless of health consequences?

Since autos were first produced mnore than a century ago, workers have been potentially exposed for long periods of time to a vast chemical soup of health hazards unique to building those vehicles. Those hazards included breathing paint vapors and solvents, the production and plating of die cast parts, welding fumes, foundry work, pattern maker carcinogen exposure, asbestos exposure, cutting fluids and many other potentially serious health dangers where identifiable toxic chemicals and/or carcinogens were present. Brake shoes, and clutch plates were regularly made from asbestos. In the automotive factories the heat pipes and water pipes were wrapped in deadly asbestos.

Asbestos fibers can lodge in the lining of the abdominal cavity, heart or lungs. They can cause asbestosis, a dreadful lung scarring, and also increases the risk of many different cancers including lung, colon, esophagus and stomach.

The materials that make automobiles can destroy the lives of the workers. Asbestos related cancers have a long latency period; so many workers may not be diagnosed until decades after exposure and retirement. Before the 1980’s, factory exposure to asbestos was especially high, and many of those workers at risk are now retired. This risk is added to that caused by the huge amount of metal used in the production of automobiles. Hence another area of serious autoworker health anxiety has been the deadly cutting fluids used in metal manufacturing. They can contain carcinogenic chemicals and have been linked to serious pulmonary illnesses. There have also been very serious concerns expressed about automobile plastic operations. There has been confirmation from other related industries that the resulting vapors and solvents used in plastics are linked to lymphatic leukemia.

Tragically, none of this is news.

A early autoworker cancer alarm was sounded in Detroit in 1979 when autoworkers raised concern about suspected excess cancer among woodworking patternmakers. The Journal of Occupational Medicine backed this up and reported that epidemiological studies have cited an increased risk of colorectal cancer among automobile pattern and model makers.

In his 1993 book, Who Will Tell the People, author William Greider talks of a worried group of autoworkers from GM’s Lordstown division called WATCH (Workers Against Toxic Chemical Hazards). They were concerned about toxic chemical hazards at their GM factory and became alarmed at how many coworkers in their plant were dying prematurely. They began checking and found that between January 1987 and July 1988, 75 of their coworkers had died of cancer, leukemia, kidney disease and heart diseases. Their mission was to warn the UAW, GM and the government of their findings--but to little avail.

A 2005 study done on autoworkers that work with metalworking fluids conducted under the University of Massachusetts by Dr. Ellen Eisen concluded that these workers may have a risk of developing prostrate cancer with a latency period of around 25 years. This could affect them in their retirement years.

In 2006, the Baltimore Sun reported that a scientist at the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) was warned that he would be suspended if he would not remove “asbestos” warnings from a certificate about the use of asbestos in automotive brake linings. In the article, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), said that the attempt to change the OSHA document is what the auto industry and brake industry is doing to defend itself against lawsuits from people who died from occupational exposure to asbestos.

In January of 2006, the Ecology Center, based in Michigan, released an alarming paper titled “Toxic at Any Speed: Chemicals in Cars and the Need for safe Alternatives” which discussed the dangerous health hazards contained in automobile interiors.  Some of the chemicals in these interiors include polybrominated diphenyl ethers and phthalates, which are used to soften the plastics in automobile interiors. The study explained how these chemicals are linked to liver toxicity, impaired learning, birth defects, premature births and many other serious health issues. The Ecology Center said autos are chemical reactors releasing toxins before you even turn the engine on. They urged automakers to stop using these dangerous chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency has listed indoor air pollution as one of the top five environmental risks to public health.

These unique auto industry health issues are far from limited to General Motors or any of our other domestic auto factories. A recent April 14, 2009 article in the Wiltshire Times in the United Kingdom reported that former autoworkers have developed the asbestos related “Swindon Disease.” The article said that the killer cancer - mesothelioma - was dubbed the “Swindon Disease” (the name of the town in the UK), because of the sheer number of lives it has claimed in the town over the years. “Asbestos was used for welding on cars until the mid 1960s and used in other parts of the factory, including on steam pipes and in the boiler room,” the article stated.

Most drivers are only in their vehicles for short periods of time compared to the autoworkers on the assembly lines who work around these trim materials 8 to 10 hours per day, 5 to 6 days a week, year after year, and they cannot roll their window down to get away. The up-close and personal glues, solvents, carpet fumes, headliner fibers and door panel vapors from thousands of ripe new cars rolling down the assembly line every week, in addition to all the other factory toxicities, are all inhaled deeply into these workers’ lungs.

Mike Bennett is the retired UAW local president of both Saturn in Springhill, Tennessee and UAW Local 326 in Flint, Michigan, which represented GM’s now-closed Flint Ternstedt Plant. The GM's Flint Ternstedt factory did the die-casting. Cancer was the main worker issue at this plant. Bennett said this one General Motors’ factory had rates of lung cancer up to three times normal and that the UAW International Union and the corporation both ignored their responsibility to the young widows of the workers who died.

It has long been a community concern about the toxic waste that these factories emit, but consider for a moment how much more potent these toxic chemicals, solvents and substances have been at ground zero for the workers and retirees who spent decades working with and closely around them.

Some of these substances that auto retirees have had to contend with are: trimethylbenzene, which can impair blood coagulation; glyco ethers, which are paint solvents to which prolonged exposure can cause liver and kidney damage, anemia, tremors and damage to neurological systems; manganese and manganese compounds, which are used in batteries and other industrial products to which overexposure can cause emotional disturbances or a disease of the brain called manganism; formaldehyde, which the EPA classifies as a probable human carcinogen; and zylene, which can cause confusion, dizziness and even death with prolonged exposure. These are just a few of the dangerous toxic chemicals and substances that auto workers may have been exposed to.

In 1994, an occupational disease panel posted a paper by Donald C. Cole, titled “Cancer in the Auto Industry." The paper covered GM, Ford and Chrysler. It discussed the consideration of compensation for those autoworkers whose cancers may have been attributable to past exposures in the auto industry. This stark and revealing paper covered male autoworker cancer risk studies relative to plant and occupation.

Some of these occupation/cancer entries included:

Assembly plants: lymphomas, trachea, lung, stomach, and pancreas cancers, and Hodgkin’s Disease;

Ball Bearing production: pancreas, stomach cancers;

Die casting & electro-plating: lympho-reticulo sarcomas, stomach cancers;

Engine plants: liver, bladder. Engine & Foundry plants:stomach, prostrate cancers;

Foundry: pancreas, leukemia, lung. Stamping: leukemia, lung, stomach cancers; 

Maintenance: pancreas cancer;

Mechanics/Repairmen: stomach, bladder, lymphopoietic, lung cancers;

Millwright: rectum, lung cancers;

Pattern makers: colon, brain, colorectal, stomach cancers;

Spray Painters: colon cancer;

Tool & Die makers: digestive, lymphopoetic cancers;

Welders: lung, pancreas, and stomach cancers.

The discussion phase of the paper did a review on the wide variety of mentioned auto plant cancers, which indicated multiple exposures and potentially potent carcinogens. The paper stated that there are a number of occupations and exposures that remain to be explored.

The auto industry is just the tip of this toxic iceberg, and this dire issue reaches equally into other industries. While this corporate toxic time bomb will profoundly impact our nation going forward, it is far from being limited to the American auto industry, our workers or the communities that these factories operate in. American based multi-nationals have shown little loyalty to any one nation. They have exported American jobs to less developed countries that allowed the exploitation of their labor with low wages and dreadful working conditions.

In too many instances, they have also exported the horrifying toxic soup that accompanies this work to these locations.

The shotgun effect of this industrial toxic time bomb could soon explode in the faces of the world’s industrialized cities and factory towns which have been chosen to relocate America’s jobs.

Mike Westfall is a retired UAW official.


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