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Toxic Exposure Cases Resolved

Workplace exposure cases spotlight real and perceived dangers

by Marc S. Reisch
March 8, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 10

Chemicals used in electronics and plastics manufacture were the subject of two legal decisions and a settlement announced recently. All three cases addressed issues about the dangers of chemicals used in the workplace.

In one case, a Delaware court judge threw out a conspiracy lawsuit against the American Chemistry Council and 30 other industry defendants for lack of evidence. Former polyvinyl chloride pipe factory worker Lori Sanzone claimed that the industry covered up the dangers of vinyl chloride. Her ordeal with cancer had been featured in a widely circulated anti-vinyl-industry documentary, "Blue Vinyl."

According to ACC Senior Counsel Don Evans, Sanzone had worked for seven days in 1978 in a Florida PVC pipe plant and claimed that she contracted angiosarcoma as a result. In fact, he says, she suffered from epithelioid hemangioendothelioma, a disease linked to birth control pills. Her attorney did not return a call for comment.

Two other cases involved IBM. In the first, a California jury cleared the firm of charges that chemicals used to manufacture hard drives sickened workers at a San Jose plant between the 1960s and 1990s and led to cancer. In the second, IBM settled out of court with the child of a former worker who charged that her birth defects were the result of her mother's exposure to chemicals used in the New York semiconductor plant where she worked.

The IBM cases were being widely watched. As one of the oldest computer makers, IBM is among the first to face trials alleging harm from chemicals commonly used to make computer chips. More than 200 similar cases have been filed by workers against IBM nationwide.

Electronic chemical makers are following the suits, too. The California case, for instance, also named as defendants Royal Dutch/Shell and the Union Carbide subsidiary of Dow Chemical because they supplied solvents and etchants to the San Jose plant.

After the jurors in the California case decided that the IBM workers did not suffer from systemic on-the-job chemical poisoning, the judge put on hold 40 similar suits pending in the San Francisco Bay Area and ordered the sides to resolve their dispute.

IBM settled the New York birth defects case, acknowledging, according to a spokesman, "that anyone with empathy can see [the plaintiff] does have significant injuries." But, he added, "that does not mean that her mother's work experience at IBM was the cause of those injuries."

The now-23-year-old plaintiff, who was born with no knee caps and suffers from serious brain damage, was seeking damages of $100 million. Terms of the settlement, however, were not disclosed.-



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