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Workers unwittingly take home toxins Employees endanger their loved ones when invisible but poisonous substances cling to their belongings
By Stephanie Armour
Antoinette Trotter couldn't figure out what was wrong with her boy. Shawn seemed so clumsy, the way he dropped dishes and sent cups clattering to the floor. He was restless, always squirming at the dinner table, unable to sit still.
Concerned, the mother brought the 6-year-old to doctors, who ran tests and told her that Shawn's blood contained nearly four times the acceptable level of lead for children, according to a lawsuit filed by the family.
Antoinette was surprised, but she was even more stunned when investigators told her why.
The boy, they told her, was being poisoned by her husband's job.
Shawn's father, Lashla, repaired and rebuilt batteries, work that brought him into contact with lead dust that he transported home on his body and clothes, the lawsuit claims. The father ''hugged and played with Shawn while still dressed in his lead-contaminated work clothes and with lead on his body and his hair,'' the lawsuit states, creating what the lawsuit says was a toxic bath that left the child with behavioral problems and a learning disability. Lead can damage the brain, nerves, red blood cells and kidneys.
Shawn, 13, still struggles with school and forgets simple tasks. Antoinette has been told the effects are permanent.
''We didn't have any idea of the risk. We felt so guilty and upset. He would wear his uniforms home, and the lead would get in the furniture he sat in, in the rug,'' says Antoinette of Vallejo, Calif. The family's lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Under the terms of the agreement, the family can't disclose the name of the employer. ''Employees, they don't know the danger. They don't know they can bring this stuff home,'' she says.
In a health risk that is often overlooked and undocumented, people of all ages are being exposed to workplace hazards so potent that they can change cell structures, slow mental development and unleash life-threatening tumors. But these are people who have never set foot in the workplaces that are poisoning them. All have been exposed to toxins that their family members unknowingly brought home from the job.
A USA TODAY computer database investigation found employees in more than 35 states have unwittingly transported toxins away from work sites -- potentially exposing legions of family members to contaminants such as mercury, radioactive material, beryllium, lead, asbestos, PCBs, pesticides and arsenic. Toxins have been carried in workers' cars and on shoes, socks, clothes, hair, tools, folders and briefcases. While family members may never develop medical problems or come into contact with the contaminants, others have died or now cope with lifelong health effects and fatal illnesses. Children often are in the most danger because of their developing organs and higher metabolic rates, health experts say.
The risk cuts across dozens of industries. USA TODAY found researchers in university labs and medical clinics have inadvertently carried radioactive substances from the job site on their shoes, skin and clothes. Artists who work with ceramics have reportedly poisoned their children with lead. Pregnant wives exposed to toxins from their husbands' jobs have had abortions rather than giving birth to children they feared might suffer adverse health effects.
Families remain at risk in part because the health hazard has been widely ignored. Five years after a report to Congress by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) warned the phenomenon ''may pose a serious public health problem,'' federal officials say no national surveillance systems exist to track cases. No programs exist to identify who is most at risk. And no comprehensive studies exist to document how effective current workplace safety protocols are at preventing contamination at home.
Only now is momentum building for more protections. NIOSH is proposing a national research agenda, which is expected to be published in 2001, that will outline gaps in current data and make recommendations other federal agencies can take to further investigate the problem. But there is no federal funding to back the recommendations or requirements that any study be undertaken.
Safety advocates and researchers are calling for research into who is most at risk, stricter enforcement of laws to prevent contaminants from leaving jobs sites and more outreach and educational efforts about the hazard. Critics say many employers don't provide safety precautions, such as showers and protective clothing, to keep job hazards from getting into employees' homes.
Workers not aware of risks
USA TODAY constructed a database of probable or documented instances of take-home contamination from around the country. The list includes information on where the instances occurred, how many victims or households were affected and the circumstances believed to have led to the exposure.
Cases were found by reviewing thousands of pages of documents, including new government records, a review of recent nuclear regulatory databases, federal health hazard reports, the 1995 NIOSH study on workers' home contamination, never-before-reported lawsuits, medical journals, interviews with doctors and researchers and other sources. The majority of instances included in the database, which is believed to be the most up to date and comprehensive of its kind, occurred in the past 20 years. The review found that employees who had reportedly exposed loved ones to workplace toxins often said they didn't know the risks and weren't provided with comprehensive safety measures. Family members of all ages have been affected, including some infants.
The investigation found that:
* Instances of known or possible take-home contamination have occurred in at least 40 industries, including lead smelting, nuclear medicine, chemical manufacturing, construction, farming, medical research and radiator repair.
* In the past 20 years, there have been more than 1,000 probable victims of exposure or instances where home contamination occurred. Employees have reportedly taken radioactive material off the job site on their clothes and hands, spreading the contaminant to at least 100 locations, including cars, homes and businesses. Hundreds of children in California with elevated lead levels have parents who may work with the toxin on the job, according to a state database of cases.
* Family members exposed to workplace toxins have reportedly suffered health effects such as cancer of the blood and lungs, learning disabilities, impaired motor coordination, memory loss, liver problems, incurable lung disease, asthma, seizures and death.
* About 20 substances used on the job have been linked to take-home exposure, and many more hazards used in the workplace are believed to be linked to take-home contamination.
* The very steps family members take in an effort to reduce risks ---- vacuuming, washing clothes and other cleaning methods ---- may increase exposure by spreading hazards throughout the home, federal studies and published research articles show.
''There's no reason to believe this isn't just the tip of the iceberg,'' Linda Rosenstock, NIOSH director, says of USA TODAY's findings. ''These are the most vulnerable victims of exposure, like the elderly and children. A lot of home-contamination cases aren't even identified as such, and we don't understand the scope of the problem. You can't adequately address this problem until you raise awareness, and we're not even there yet.''
A nuclear pharmacist in Stamford, Conn., contaminated his hand, wrists and jacket with radiation that was not detected during routine monitoring when he left work, according to a review of Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) databases. He took the train home and back to work the next morning, when the contamination was discovered. Contamination was found in the worker's home ---- which he shared with four others ---- on such items as bedding and towels, the 1997 report states.
Several young boys in the 1980s developed breasts -- a temporary condition attributed to the probable absorption of zeranol, an animal growth promoter. The children's parents worked at an Indianapolis chemical plant where the substance was used, according to a Health Hazard Evaluation report by NIOSH. A sample of work clothing routinely washed at home was contaminated with zeranol. Children as young as 4 months ''developed breast enlargement at a time when the parents worked in the production department of the plant,'' the report states.
A medical researcher in Ann Arbor, Mich., spilled radioactive material in a university lab while working over a weekend, according to a 1992 NRC event report. The spill went undetected, and the room was open for use. Individuals walked through the contamination and spread it off-site, causing about 40 pairs of shoes and some car mats to become contaminated.
Toxins that are transported off-site often are invisible or too small to be noticed, so relatives or friends may never know they've been put at risk. They may be exposed if they touch a contaminated worker, handle his or her clothing or clean a house that contains hazards tracked in from the job.
Hazards can get into the home when workers or employers fail to follow or provide proper safety protocols, such as showers or protective clothing. But health experts say workers who abide by safeguards may still carry home levels high enough to pose a risk to children, who can often suffer health effects from even small amounts of contaminants.
''Even hugging Mommy or Daddy can be problematic,'' says Jerome Paulson, an associate professor of medicine, pediatrics and community health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. ''Pesticides may get tracked in on Dad's shoes, and kids crawl on the floor and put their hands in their mouth. If Mom is pregnant, what Dad brings home may get to the fetus. The risk is out there, but there's much we don't know.''
Joe Kennedy says he never thought there was any risk. Sitting in his garage and nursing a Coke, he thinks about his late wife, Ellen Marie. For years, she worried that his job at a nuclear plant might expose him to harmful radiation. All along, Kennedy claims in a lawsuit, his job was actually killing her.
Kennedy worked as a machinist at San Onofre (Calif.) Nuclear Generating Station. He came into contact with radioactive material that he unwittingly carried home on his clothes and body -- exposing Ellen Marie to radiation that was a substantial factor in her development of cancer, according to a lawsuit filed in a federal court in California. He began working there in February 1981. Ellen Marie was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia in May 1995.
He lost his case, but an appeals court this year set aside that judgment and ordered a new trial because of improper jury instruction. Ray Golden, a spokesman for Southern California Edison, the majority owner of the plant, says facts and science ''demonstrated there was no connection between Mrs. Kennedy's cancer and her husband's employment at San Onofre.'' Stringent safety protocols, he says, are now in place to protect workers. Employees may be monitored with Geiger counters, for example, and workers must go through training in which they demonstrate their ability to correctly don and remove protective clothing.
But Kennedy is convinced Ellen Marie would be alive today if he'd never gone to work at the plant. Ellen Marie, a mother of four, died on Aug. 25, 1996.
''You know what eats at me?'' says Kennedy, 47, of Fountain Valley, Calif. ''She told me not to go down there, not to work there, because she was worried about me. I told her, 'Honey, there's nothing to worry about.' And she was the one that was dying. If it was something like red paint, you'd see it, you'd get it off you before you went home. But you can't see this. I live with the guilt.''
Low risk, employers say
Many employers and industry leaders say the danger of workers carrying home contaminants is minimal. Some industries and private companies have adopted safety guidelines -- such as monitoring workers' urine for signs they've been exposed to chemicals -- that are more stringent than required by state and federal law. Federal officials say families are adequately protected by regulations to keep contaminated clothing from leaving the job site.
''There is little risk,'' says Donald Gallo, a Milwaukee lawyer who has represented the Polyurethane Manufacturers Association. ''We monitor closely. It's generally a worker not using proper protection. We try to tell them about the dangers to ensure safe handling.''
But doctors, safety advocates and industry critics are pressing for more oversight of the issue. More than 32 million workers are exposed to hazardous chemicals in more than 3.5 million workplaces, according to estimates from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Critics say families remain at risk because policymakers and government officials have largely ignored the dangers despite mounting evidence the risk is widespread and may be growing.
Among their complaints:
* Inadequate inspections. Over the past 30 years, OSHA has issued about 170 citations -- an average of about six a year -- against employers for not having proper procedures in place to prevent contaminated clothes and tools from leaving the job. Businesses with 10 or fewer employees are exempt from programmed OSHA inspections, even though small firms may be where many of the problems occur.
''Clearly, there's more going on than OSHA is able to handle,'' says Daniel Swartz, executive director at the Washington, D.C.-based Children's Environmental Health Network, an organization of child-health experts and advocates. ''You have limited enforcement. It's disturbing.''
But government officials say employers who don't follow standards are found during general inspections. Investigators will visit small companies if there are fatalities or complaints, they say. ''Workers should bring home paychecks, not poisons,'' Labor Secretary Alexis Herman says. ''They have a right to expect that . . . adequate safeguards will be in place to make sure that hazardous substances are not brought home on their clothing, on their skin or in their cars.''
* Regulations targeted at workers only. While the government sets standards designating acceptable exposure levels for workers who come into contact with a variety of toxins, there can still be take-home risks for children.
''The standards don't protect the children. They're written for adults,'' says Barbara Materna, chief of the occupational lead poisoning prevention program at the California Department of Health Services in Oakland. ''We're seeing more and more cases. The workers don't look like they're covered in dust. Lead is so toxic that even small amounts can be dangerous to kids.''
* Scant education and training. Employers may ignore regulations because they don't understand the risks or they believe they won't get caught. Workers may also ignore safety protocols. Employers are required to tell employees who come into contact with certain hazards to take safety measures, but no federal regulations require them to tell workers that those toxins may also foul the home and hurt family.
In a study published in American Industrial Hygiene Association Journal, only 50% of lead-exposed construction workers had been trained about lead hazards at work, and some were contaminating their cars and homes with lead from the job.
Putting loved ones at risk
When contamination in the home does occur, it may never be discovered because symptoms can masquerade as other medical problems ---- family members exposed to lead, for example, may not feel sick, or they may suffer from vague complaints such as fatigue, upset stomach, irritability, weakness and muscle pain. Health problems such as cancer that may be related to exposure to hazards can take 10 years or more to develop. Even then, environmental and other factors may play a role.
''There's a potential for it to go unnoticed because doctors don't always take occupational histories with the frequency we'd like to see,'' says Michael Kosnett at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.
While many cases escape detection, research has found that certain substances ---- including mercury, radiation, cadmium, beryllium, lead and pesticides ---- have been repeatedly carried from the job site by unsuspecting employees.
Radiation is a hazard that has been connected to health effects in workers' family members, including cancer and birth defects. USA TODAY reviewed federal NRC databases and Department of Energy (DOE) reports. In the past 10 years, there have been more than 60 documented instances involving workers who carried radioactive contamination, often on their body or clothes, to their homes or cars. That number is conservative because off-site contamination to the home is not uniquely coded and text searches may not identify all cases that occur. Some examples:
* Radioactive contamination was taken off-site from Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state because of ''transfer of contamination to an employee's home via his socks,'' according to a Sept. 28, 1998, DOE report.
A keyhole in a medical building lab at Temple University in Philadelphia was found to be contaminated with radioactive material during a routine quarterly monitoring survey, according to a Sept. 25, 1997, NRC report. Five people had contamination on their clothing and three had contamination on their hands. It was also found on a steering wheel. ''The spread of contamination may have occurred as a result of use of contaminated keys,'' according to the report.
* A lab worker at University of Southern California at Los Angeles unknowingly used contaminated scissors, according to a 1995 NRC report. He contaminated himself, areas in the lab, his home, car and a beauty salon, where small amounts of contamination were found on the arms of the chair he sat in.
Nuclear regulatory officials say such incidents are rare and most radioactive exposures are too small to be worrisome. Many safety precautions exist to prevent home contamination, they say. Nuclear plants use monitors to detect radiation on workers, they say, and changing rooms are set aside for workers.
''Sometimes things happen, but it's pretty rare,'' says Mindy Landau, an NRC spokeswoman. ''Human error plays a large part. Procedures often are in place, but people can be lax in following them.''
Mercury and lead
Like radiation, mercury is a substance that can be transported on clothing and shoes. The metal is the source of the saying ''mad as a hatter,'' which refers to the tremors that once afflicted 19th-century hatmakers who used mercury in the felting process.
Exposure can involve one household or many. In Poultney, Vt., a number of former employees allegedly exposed children and spouses to mercury carried home from a now-defunct thermometer plant, according to claims made by the state in a lawsuit. Urine tests found mercury in 18 plant workers' children, according to a deposition by former Vermont Health Commissioner Roberta Coffin. (Story, above.)
''I didn't know,'' says Patricia Foley, 58, who says she worked at the plant and exposed her son to mercury. She lives just outside of town. ''I feel terrible that I did this to him. He was my baby, and I did this to him. I peppered him with this stuff for 12 years. It was on my clothes and shoes. It affected my son.''
Lead has been repeatedly tracked from the workplace to the home, and many employees work with the substance. Parents who restored antiques have transported lead home from sanding old finishes. Employees who fix batteries, repair radiators or splice cables have carried lead dust home.
California maintains a database of children in the state who have elevated blood lead levels. About 9,000 children have been identified between 1992 and 1999. At the request of USA TODAY, the state health services department reviewed the database and found that, where follow-up case management occurred, 10% of the children with poisoning also had a family member in a job that may have involved lead exposure and take-home contamination. That doesn't mean all those children were poisoned by lead brought home from the job, but officials say it does indicate take-home contamination may be a widespread problem. Even small amounts can pose a hazard, especially to developing children. Lead dust is often so fine it can be invisible.
Beryllium can be deadly
Like lead, beryllium can be hazardous to family members when it is dust. The lightweight metal is used in aerospace components, semiconductor chips, transistors, metallurgy and dental work such as bridges and crowns. If it is ground or sanded, particles can be inhaled. Even minute amounts can cause a crippling and incurable lung disease that strikes people genetically predisposed to the disease.
Researchers have documented about 40 cases of the disease among workers' family members, according to NIOSH reports. In a published report on one recent case, a 56-year-old woman was diagnosed with the disease in 1990. She had never worked with metal, but her husband was employed at a beryllium plant. Although he always showered at work and wore special work clothes, the woman had scrubbed her husband's face and hair ---- removing metallic debris imbedded in his skin ---- after he was injured in a plant explosion. She also handled his clothes. That contact, doctors say, is believed to have exposed her to enough beryllium to cause the disease. The case indicates that ''a much larger population may be at risk than is recognized,'' the report states.
Research shows that employees who work with beryllium have transported the hazardous dust away from the work site even if they changed out of their work clothes. In a 1999 study, researchers tested the hands and cars of beryllium plant workers at the end of their shifts. About 80% of production workers reported that they always or usually changed their shirts before going home or wore shop coats over street clothes while working. Even so, many employees had residual beryllium on their hands. The highest levels were on the driver's side of vehicles, indicating that ''workers were potentially carrying beryllium home with them on their hands, clothing and shoes,'' according to the report.
Knowing the dangers
As the beryllium studies suggest, employees who work with many dangerous substances can still take toxins to their home if they don't follow enough safety protocols. Workers who wear respirators may think they're safe, but they can have contaminants on their hair and body if they don't change clothes before leaving the job, experts say. Even changing clothes may be insufficient because residue can cling to skin, and showers may be needed to wash the hazards away.
Family members who clean the home can raise their risks or spread the hazard. Laundry rooms where contaminated work clothes are washed can become toxic zones. Decontamination steps can be inadequate because small amounts of contaminants may linger on car seats, rugs, couches and other surfaces. Vacuuming up mercury can disperse the substance in the air, where it is more readily absorbed.
Marjorie Stilphen, a 50-year-old grandmother in Bath, Maine, says more efforts are needed to make employees and family members aware of the dangers. Stilphen, who has terminal mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the chest), says she is suffering today because of exposure to asbestos carried home from the workplace.
Her husband and father both came into contact with the substance while working at Bath Iron Works, according to a 1998 lawsuit. The family filed a lawsuit against the company and a number of firms that had manufactured or supplied asbestos products to them. Some aspects of the lawsuit have been settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, but others are pending, court officials say. A spokeswoman for Bath Iron Works, which designs and builds naval ships, declined to comment.
''I was dumbstruck,'' Marjorie says of her diagnosis. ''It's not something I had expected. To me, there was only one place I could have gotten it.''
Adds Clarence, her husband: ''The whole issue of take-home toxins doesn't get enough education. Workers aren't generally aware of the concerns of bringing it home. There are a lot of good rules out there, but companies don't do a good enough job of following them. People need to know.''
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