Chemical exposure at Goodyear’s Niagara Falls plant will impact workers for years to come
“You know the guys used to joke to me, they’d be like, man Goodyear’s been good to you Harry. They gave you a wife, because that’s where I met Diane, you have a father-in-law that you worked for, and the other thing you got at Goodyear was bladder cancer so you know, you got everything."
We’re well into the holiday season, when I sit down with Harry and Diane Weist in their renovated farmhouse in western New York. Our conversation’s interrupted a few times by their little chihuahua, who likes to get in on the act.
“Moochie, go lay down, go lay down. Get in there,” Harry chides.
Finally we talk, as Moochie snores loudly from underneath a blanket. The couple spend half of their year in Nevada now, mainly because their kids have all moved out there. Harry retired from the Goodyear Chemical Factory in 2009, and they’re struggling with the idea of selling their home.
But there are a couple of reasons they’ve held on here, 20 minutes away from Niagara Falls. One is an emotional tug-of-war with the family home they raised their kids in, and the other is the New York health care system.
“It was fun," Harry recalls,"I worked with a lot of people that were my age. They had older guys but I really enjoyed working there," he said. "We made a good wage. And the thing is it was almost like one big family, because back in the day that’s how people got jobs."
"You could get a son or a daughter or a relative a job, and so there was like be families that would have three or four sons working there, and everyone knew each other.”
And that’s just how Harry had got his job in 1977. His Mom was a switchboard operator at the plant.
By then Goodyear had been making chemical products at the plant for 30 years, including one called Nailax. Marketed as Wing-Stay 100, it went out in the form of black chips as an additive in the tire making process. It prevents the synthetic rubber in tires from breaking down.
The company’s own tire division has been the biggest user, but other makers like Dunlop and Michelin have also bought it. One of the key ingredients in Nailax is a yellow fluid called ortho-toluidine. Goodyear’s biggest supplier, starting around 1957, was DuPont, who manufactured ortho-toluidine at a plant in Southern New Jersey.
Steve Wodka, a lawyer who’s sued DuPont and other suppliers on behalf of 24 former Goodyear workers says the company knew ortho-toluidine was a potential bladder carcinogen by 1955.
“However DuPont didn’t issue any warning about the potential carcinogenicity of ortho-toluidine until 22 years later in 1977,” Wodka said.
The year that Harry Weist started at Goodyear. It’d be another 13 years before any changes were made to protect workers at the Niagara Falls plant.
Weist started work in the vinyl department. He first came into contact with ortho-toluidine when he’d use equipment in another building known as Department 245, the rubber chemicals division.
“I’d use their gloves, their buckets, their steam hoses, their lines, sometimes in the winter lines would freeze up and I would have to follow lines out and I would be sitting in these buildings and there might be ortho-toluidine or 'recycle,'" he recalled.
"They had this stuff called recycle that had all the chemicals in it. And what it was, they would heat it out of the reactors and it would become a vapor. And then they’d turn it back into a liquid, then they had a way to heat it up and get the chemicals back and reuse them. [And] I really didn’t get an idea what was going on like with this ortho-toluidine, ‘til after NIOSH came in and they did this study.”
A team of epidemiologists from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) was called into the plant in the late 1980s by the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union. The OCAW had been raising the alarm over the chemical for a decade or so. By then the union knew of at least eight cases of bladder cancer, but NIOSH uncovered more.
The researchers zoned in on Department 245, where the ortho-toluidine was used. The fluid was pumped into chemical reactors from a tank farm outside the building. NIOSH found chemicals leaking from pipes and valves pooling in open areas, presenting plenty of opportunity for workers to be exposed to bladder cancer carcinogens.
“And the risk was quite high actually, for people who’d worked there for quite some time, the risk went up to 27-fold, and even [for] people who’d worked a shorter amount of time, there was an excess risk of bladder cancer,” said Steve Markowitz, now a professor in occupational and environmental medicine at Queens College in New York, who was part of the study.
In 1988 Harry Weist moved fulltime to Department 245 as a maintenance worker, just before the NIOSH study. He doesn’t remember seeing any safety warnings on the ortho-toluidine used in the plant.
“Back in the day, we just wore our regular street clothes," he said until his wife, Diane chimes in: "Well no, you had clothes set aside for work, I washed them. But they weren’t clothes he would wear to go out anywhere. He had jeans and t-shirts that he’d just wore to work."
"And then Goodyear started supplying us with uniforms, but I can’t remember when that was,” Harry concluded.
Exposure through the skin would turn worker’s lips blue, Diane remembers.
“You never wanted to have like light-colored sheets or anything like that ‘cause he’d take a shower at work. And during the night you’d wake up in the morning and there’d be like an orangey stain on the pillow from him just sleeping on it. Like it was coming out of his pores.”
Markowitz sums up the workplace at the time of the NIOSH study: “There was not sufficient protection of workers, and little attempt to really reduce exposure so it wasn’t so much a question of culture I think, it was more a question of what actions were actually taken to protect workers and it was a pretty primitive plant frankly.”
But by the time Goodyear acted on the NIOSH study and started providing personal protection equipment like chemical-barrier suits it was too late for Harry, and for Diane’s dad.
“That’s what happened was, these guys started getting sick, getting bladder cancer, Diane’s Dad, Ray got diagnosed in 1999. But I remember me and Diane watching him go through this and I’m like, Boy I don’t want to ever get that," Mr. Weist said. "How ironic that I ended up getting it too.”
In fact Ray Kline got sick a couple of years earlier than that. Harry’s diagnosis came in 2004. His doctor caught it early because of the spate of other cases from the plant. His father-in-law rode out two bouts of bladder cancer and survived. In other cases, a worker exposed to ortho-toluidine at a factory in New Jersey died.
The long latency period of the disease means it’s very likely there’ll be more cases to come from the roughly 1,800 people who worked at Goodyear Chemical, says Markowitz.
“So let’s say they begin work at the plant aged 18, 20 or 22, it would be most likely they wouldn’t develop bladder cancer until their 50’s 0r 60’s,” he said.
Following a class-action lawsuit, Goodyear has to pay for biannual bladder screening for ex-workers.
Harry Weist, who’s 57, continues to undergo regular painful bladder biopsies. Both he and Diane, who had a summer job at the plant in the late 1970s, will have to be tested for the rest of their lives.
Diane Weist shows me a test kit that arrives at the house twice a year, by FedEx.
“I didn’t work like he did. I was in the lab, but I did go through the plant, I did monitoring through the plant, and I had to go over there, and I was nervous about it. but I do the [testing], actually I have one that I have to send this week,” she said.
Wodka says he’s just confirmed a new case of bladder cancer, a former Goodyear office worker.
“The woman who was a secretary for four years, and she worked inside the plant itself, and she was bottled off inside the plant itself, and she has just developed bladder cancer," Wodka said. "She has no other risk factors, for developing bladder cancer, she never smoked, she had no other exposure but she worked inside the plant.”
Goodyear insists it’s used effective industrial hygiene at the plant for decades now and does pre- and post-shift urine screening to measure levels of ortho-toluidine in workers.
Wodka says that’s not enough and that there needs to be definitive action from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to impose stricter limits on exposure to ortho-toluidine, which is now imported from India and China and trucked to the plant. He's also pushing for an increase in the frequency of screening for active workers at the facility.
“We have so much information now from the Goodyear plant, that exposures of 5 parts per million, which is the allowable level for workers in the United States will cause bladder cancer,” he said.
Markowitz says there's more where this came from.
"I think frankly in upstate New York, and in other places in the country where there have been prior excessive exposure to a number of different chemicals, I think there probably are other clusters of disease that frankly haven’t been recognized yet,” he said.
Harry received a confidential payout from DuPont, and Harry’s become a point of contact for other workers. Despite the cancer, he’s got fond memories of his years at the plant he says was like a big family, even when things were grim.
“And them guys used to tell me," he recalled. "They’d be like, you know what you already got it. Like if we had a leak in the pump, they’d be like you suit up, you go in there, you already got it [bladder cancer], you go and take care of it.”
This story is part of a joint investigation between the Innovation Trail and the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. Original reporting by Jim Morris, who's investigation can be read here.
Archival Photos courtesy: Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company Records, Archival Services, University Libraries, The University of Akron; Akron, Ohio.