Workplace poison

 EDITORIAL The Record Friday, May 23, 2003

A CLASS-ACTION lawsuit filed on behalf of thousands of workers in a now-closed factory in the city of Passaic recalls a tragic chapter in New Jersey's history. America's plastics industry was born in this state, but the dark side of that story is the exposure to toxic chemicals that has caused illness and death for an unknown number of workers.

Although it comes decades after the damage was done, the lawsuit is necessary to try to hold those responsible accountable for their alleged negligence and secrecy.

The legal action targets Pantasote Inc., a giant factory that used the poisonous chemical compound vinyl chloride from the late 1950s to the 1980s in the manufacture of plastics. Sometimes polyvinyl chloride dust swirled through the plant like snow, and sometimes it swirled through the neighborhood. Workers were also exposed to vinyl chloride fumes in amounts up to 3,000 times higher than what is safe.

A few of those workers are now known to have died of extremely rare cancers that are the signature diseases of vinyl chloride exposure. Combing through the records of 36 dead Pantasote workers, Record Staff Writer Candy Cooper found . two deaths from a rare liver cancer, one from a rare kidney cancer, and one from liver disease, as well as other forms of cancer. 

The class-action lawsuit, which alleges years of deception and denial of the dangers by Pantasote executives and the U.S. plastics industry, seeks to establish a trust fund that would pay for medical monitoring and treatment for former Pantasote workers who show symptoms of diseases related to vinyl chloride exposure. It also seeks damages for those workers.

The lawsuit names Pantasote and dozens of other companies, insurers, and trade associations that it claims conspired to hide the dangers of vinyl chloride. It charges that medical exams and experiments were conducted on workers and that fraudulent studies were published that suppressed damaging information and made the chemicals appear safer than they actually were. Pantasote workers were among the earliest and most heavily exposed to vinyl chloride in the plastics industry.

Many of the surviving Pantasote workers still live in North Jersey, wondering what the future holds. Many of the families of those who died are still grieving. 

These workers were entitled to know the dangers they were facing in the factory every day. They were entitled to be protected as much as possible. If the lawsuit's allegations of deception are true, these workers are entitled to compensation for their suffering now and for whatever work-related illnesses they may still contract. 

This legal action is also an important step in the long and continuing battle to hold polluters and those who operate hazardous workplaces accountable for the inestimable damage they do and the suffering they cause. Corporate self-interest must not take precedence over worker health. The Pantasote lawsuit cautions today's hazardous industries that workplace safety must be a top priority, and that these industries should be held accountable for preventable illness and death.