NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — Ray Kline, it’s said, bled Goodyear blue.
Compact and laconic, Kline signed on as an operator at the Goodyear chemical plant here in 1960 and logged just short of 40 years. He routinely worked six days a week, 12 hours a day, retiring in 1999 as head of maintenance.
“I made a good living,” Kline said in the dining room of his comfortable home in Lewiston, N.Y., two blocks from the Niagara River — betraying little bitterness over the price his family paid for economic stability.
Kline, 75, has endured two bouts of bladder cancer. Strong evidence suggests the disease was work-related.
In a yet-to-be published study, federal health investigators have confirmed 50 cases of bladder cancer among plant employees through 2007, nearly three times the number that would have been expected in the general population of New York State. The unofficial tally to date, compiled by a lawyer for some of the cancer victims, is 58 cases.
The likely trigger in most instances, investigators concluded, was a chemical, still used by Goodyear and others, called ortho-toluidine.
The disease made its appearance in 1972 and continues to plague this decaying pocket of western New York. Workers at the 67-year-old plant, a collegial place that sustained generations, called it “the ginch.” Those who survived it fear its return. Those who avoided it wonder when their luck will run out. Many question why the chemical’s most prominent manufacturer, DuPont, took so long to issue warnings.
The long-running episode underscores the limits of regulation and points up the insidious nature of occupational illnesses, which by one estimate take more than 50,000 lives in America each year.
It’s a cautionary tale at a time when more than 80,000 chemicals, many carrying unknown or little-understood health effects, are on the market in the United States. Workers can become unwitting test subjects, made vulnerable by employers that fail to act on scientific knowledge or, in extreme cases, suppress the truth.
Three years before Kline landed at Goodyear, the plant began making Nailax, an antioxidant that keeps tires from cracking. Three U.S. companies supplied a key ingredient, ortho-toluidine, at various times from the 1950s into the 1990s; DuPont supplied Goodyear for the longest period, almost four decades.
By 1955, records show, DuPont knew the chemical caused bladder cancer in laboratory animals and protected its own workers from it. But it didn’t issue warnings to Goodyear and other customers until 1977, the year Kline’s son-in-law, Harry Weist, started at the Niagara Falls plant.
It would be another 13 years before Goodyear would take significant steps to reduce exposures to ortho-toluidine in the plant. By then, the outbreak of bladder cancer was under way.
Kline was case No. 21, diagnosed in 1997. Weist was No. 37, diagnosed in 2004.
“None of us are simple-minded,” said Weist, 57, who worked at the plant for 34 years. “If we knew this stuff was bad and we were getting exposed to it back in the day, we would have protected ourselves.”
In a statement to the Center for Public Integrity, Goodyear said it “takes the issue of ortho-toluidine exposure at the Niagara Falls plant very seriously. We are deeply concerned and continue to be committed to actions to address the issue.”
DuPont said it “conducts its business in accordance with the highest ethical standards and in compliance with all applicable laws to ensure the safety and health of our employees, our customers, and the people of the communities in which we operate. Our experience with ortho-toluidine was no exception.”
Its communications about the chemical were, DuPont said, “commensurate with the state of scientific knowledge” at the time.
Steve Wodka, a lawyer in Little Silver, N.J., maintains DuPont could have told Goodyear how to use ortho-toluidine safely by 1957, when Goodyear’s rubber chemicals division opened in Niagara Falls.
“There were so many warning signals,” said Wodka, who has sued DuPont and other ortho-toluidine suppliers on behalf of 24 bladder cancer victims from Goodyear and three from the now-shuttered Morton International chemical plant in Paterson, N.J. “If people had simply heeded them, there would have been a lot of lives saved.”
The disease cluster “wouldn’t have been detected by the medical community” had the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union not pushed for a federal investigation at Goodyear, Wodka said. “It would have just blended into the background.”