Monday, May 14, 2001

Chemicals blamed for rail workers' illnesses

The Associated Press

        LOUISVILLE — Decades of unsafe handling of the chemical solvents used to clean locomotives is being blamed for causing brain damage to hundreds of railroad workers in Kentucky and other parts of the country.

        Doctors say more than 600 railroaders have developed mild to severe brain damage in the past 15 years from their heavy and long-term exposure to common degreasing solvents.

        The Louisville Courier-Journal reported that during a 10-month investigation it found that railroad workers in Louisville and Corbin have been diagnosed with toxic encephalopathy — a debilitating illness characterized by short-term memory loss, depression, anxiety and diminished mental function.

        Railroad workers diagnosed with the disease also were found in places such as Nashville, Tenn.; Waycross, Ga.; Huntington, W.Va.; Cumberland, Md.; Hamlet, N.C.; Mobile, Ala.; and Livingston, Mont., the newspaper reported in the first of a four-part series.

        The railroad compa nies, which collectively have paid tens of millions of dollars to settle solvent lawsuits, have denied any link between workers' solvent exposure and brain damage.

        CSX Transportation Inc., the largest railroad in the eastern United States, has acknowledged paying up to $35 million to 466 current or former workers in confidential solvent settlements or jury verdicts.

        But the company denies that solvents used in its shops caused brain injuries to workers.

        “We do not believe that the science and the medicine supports this causal connection,” said Edward H. Stopher, a Louisville attorney hired by CSX to defend the company in court.

        “In most of these cases, we believe there's some other explanation for these perceived symptoms.”

        However, workers are still coming forward with symptoms after having been exposed from the 1960s into the '90s, medical experts say.

        “This group is unique in my clinical experience among large employers, since the 1950s,” said Dr. Alan M. Ducatman, chair man of the Department of Community Medicine at West Virginia University School of Medicine.

        “It is the only substantial work population group I know about in the United States since that time where fresh-air breaks were a tacit part of the job because the employees were goofy-headed” from inhaling solvent fumes, he said.

        In the newspaper's investigation of the railroads' 50-year use of such solvents as 1,1,1-trichloroethane, trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene, reporters interviewed more than 200 people, including current or former workers, supervisors and government regulators.

        It also reviewed legal documents from 10 states.

        Memos and transcripts show that some industry officials acknowledged as far back as 1957 that chlorinated solvents were dangerous, that shop ventilation was sometimes inadequate and that workers needed respiratory protection.

        CSX has said that some law firms aggressively recruited clients and helped plant the idea that workers were sick.


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