PASSAIC - Workers who were employed by plastic manufacturing giant Pantasote filed a class-action lawsuit against the defunct company Thursday in state Superior Court in Essex County, claiming that it conspired to hide the dangers of vinyl chloride and intentionally injured their health.
The 75-page lawsuit also names the company's 36 suppliers, including large brand name manufacturers such as Firestone, Monsanto and Goodyear. All supplied the factory with vinyl chloride. Also named are Pantasote's insurers, Allstate and New Jersey Manufacturers, which inspected the Jefferson Street plant for health and safety hazards, the suit alleges.
Vinyl chloride is a human carcinogen and has been associated with tumors of the liver, brain and lungs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A large number of epidemiological studies have substantiated the casual association between vinyl chloride and angiosarcoma, a cancer of the liver.
Vinyl chloride, used almost exclusively in the plastics industry, is industrially important because of its flame-retardant properties. The government banned the sale of all propellants and aerosols containing vinyl chloride in 1974 after determining that it was an animal and human carcinogen.
Nicholas Lewis Jr., 46, of Butler, one of the workers at the factory seeking monetary relief and punitive damages, said his father's job at Pantasote cost him his life. Nicholas Lewis Sr. lived in Garfield and worked at the plant for 30 years.
"My father never smoked or drank in his life," Lewis said. "He died of liver cancer because of exposure to vinyl chloride."
Lewis himself is in good physical health, but not a day goes by without him thinking that he might be the next victim of chemical exposure, he said.
"I am very afraid, even though my time at the Pantasote company was limited to a five-and-a-half-year period," he said. "I don't know what the exposure could do to my body." The suit claims that Pantasote intentionally exposed workers to vinyl chloride, putting them at "greatly increased risk" of disease. It is not known how many workers have fallen ill or might have died since the factory was abandoned in 1993 The attorneys in the case are still hoping to reach out to as many of them as possible.
The company's suppliers are accused of conspiring to conceal the health hazards of vinyl chloride.
Additionally, they are alleged to have conducted medical exams and experiments on their workers without their consent and published fraudulent studies minimizing the hazards of vinyl chloride.
"They knew about the dangers all along and they didn't do anything about it," said Jon Gelman, of Wayne, one of the attorneys in the suit. "You wonder why, for a can of hairspray, you have to kill a life."
Lewis said he recalled workers being closely exposed to vinyl chloride, which was delivered to the plant in paper bags that tore easily. The fine powder easily leaked from the bags and spread throughout the plant, he said.
"That stuff was blowing all over the place," Lewis said. "It would coat cars in the parking lot with a very fine layer of white dust."
A representative from New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Group., which underwrote Pantasote's worker's compensation from 1962 to 1982, said the company could not comment because it hadn't seen the lawsuit.
"What is unusual in this case is that it's happening long after the insurance expired, and they are suing the insurance companies separate from and in addition to the employer," said Patrick Breslin, company spokesman.
The insurance company could be held liable if it is proven that workers' injuries are traceable to a chemical such as vinyl chloride, he said.
The company never received a claim from a Pantasote worker reporting injuries suffered as a result of exposure to vinyl chloride, Breslin said.
Built in the 1880s, the Pantasote factory employed several hundred workers in the manufacture of fabrics used on trains, and later produced plastic trays. Today, the building still stands on Jefferson Street, a relic prone to fires and regularly inhabited by homeless people and drug addicts.
Pantasote set up a $1.5 million fund for a cleanup of the site in 1993, which was partially completed.
The city or a new owner could tap this fund to complete the work.
The state estimated that demolition of the building could cost about $1 million.
Herald News 11/2/2002