High bladder cancer rate shrouds New York plant, exposing chemical hazards in the workplace

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The Goodyear chemical plant in Niagara Falls, N.Y., has been plagued for decades by high rates of bladder cancer within its workforce. Federal health investigators blame a chemical called ortho-toluidine, used in a tire antioxidant.

Matthew Leonard/WXXI

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.”

Goodyear ‘social club’

The Goodyear plant in Niagara Falls opened in 1946 as the city, blessed with cheap hydroelectric power from the Niagara River, was becoming a manufacturing behemoth. Factories lined Buffalo Avenue — B.F. Goodrich, Olin Mathieson, International Paper. By the 1950s, word was, you could quit a job in the morning and be working in a new place that afternoon.

Ray Kline came to Goodyear in January 1960, having migrated north from Pennsylvania a year or so earlier and knocked around places like Nabisco and Autolite Battery. Kline was hired as an operator in Department 145, where polyvinyl chloride (PVC) resin was made in reactors. He helped clean the reactors, chipping away at the hard, white plastic with a hammer and chisel. He also helped bag the PVC powder.

Nine years later Kline transferred to maintenance, which frequently took him into Department 245, the rubber chemicals division. Here ortho-toluidine, a yellowish liquid, was pumped into reactors from tanks outside and used to make Nailax, which came out looking like dark chocolate chips and was bagged for shipment to Goodyear tire plants.

“The 245 reactors — after all the mixture had taken place, you always had sludge and crap in the bottom,” Kline said. “You had to go in and clean it out.” The company’s method of determining overexposure was crude, he said: Workers were told to go outside when their fingernails and lips turned blue.

Harry Weist, Kline’s gregarious son-in-law, said Goodyear was like a “social club,” where fathers got jobs for sons, workers tormented one another with practical jokes, football pools were managed and hockey outings organized. At its peak the plant employed about 300 union workers, who earned solidly middle-class wages, sometimes better. People stayed.

The plant was also a breeding ground for disease.

By the early 1970s, three workers from Department 145 — the PVC unit, which closed in 1996 — had died of a rare form of liver cancer called angiosarcoma, which researchers blamed on a sweet-smelling chemical called vinyl chloride.

When Kline worked in Department 145 in the 1960s, his wife, Dottie, bore two children, John and Donna, with severe birth defects in consecutive years. John, who was missing much of his brain and skull, a condition called anencephaly, lived for one day. Donna, born with a brain fluid buildup known as hydrocephalus and spina bifida, a spinal cord defect, survived six weeks.

Dottie Kline believes her husband’s work around vinyl chloride caused both children’s defects, a theory with some scientific support.

In 1975, Peter Infante, then an epidemiologist with the Ohio Department of Health, reported significant excesses of birth defects in three Ohio cities with PVC production sites. His study, he wrote, “demonstrated that malformations involving the central nervous system in those three communities were particularly high,” though they couldn’t be pinned to a particular chemical.

Infante, who went on to work for two federal agencies, later emphasized that it was important to assess “not only the effects of [vinyl chloride] as transmitted through the female, but also the potential for any adverse effect that may be transmitted through the male.”

The research didn’t come in time for the Klines. “It still hurts to talk about it,” Dottie said.

In 1986, Ray Kline nearly died of a heart attack at 48 after being struck in the chest by a piece of equipment at work. Bladder cancer came on in 1997 and reappeared a year later. “He is still getting suspicious cells to this day,” Dottie said.

Ray said he considers it all “water under the bridge. I don’t get too excited about it.” He had to be coaxed by his family into bringing a lawsuit against DuPont, thinking it might reflect badly on Goodyear.

“Honestly, there’s drawbacks to any place you work,” he said. “You just need to be aware of them, and we weren’t aware of them at the time.”

His wife is not as forgiving.

“He’s been through a lot because of Goodyear,” Dottie said. “Sure gave us a good living, but I don’t know that it was worth what we went through with our kids and what he’s been through.”

Asked about the Klines’ ordeal, Goodyear said, “The health and safety of our associates has always been at the top of our agenda. That includes all operations at the Niagara Falls facility.”

Recipe for cancer

After nearly three years in the Air Force, Harry Weist started in Department 145 — vinyl — at Goodyear in December 1977. “My mom was a switchboard operator there and I said, ‘Give me a job.’ ”

Weist, who married Ray Kline’s daughter, Diane, in 1980, spent a decade in Department 145. He ventured at times into Building C-2, the recycling area of the rubber chemicals division. Here liquid waste drained from the Nailax reactors, including ortho-toluidine, was collected. Weist’s path to becoming bladder cancer case No. 37 may have begun in C-2.

In those days, and for years after, some workers handled the vilest of compounds wearing only T-shirts, jeans, ball caps and cotton gloves. The most-despised task was cleaning the Sparkler filters, which removed iron filings from the batches of Nailax. “You’d open it and you’d have orange fumes coming off it,” Weist said. “It was really nasty.” The fumes were rich with ortho-toluidine.

There were other, bigger sources of exposure. For 31 years, Goodyear weighed ortho-toluidine — pumped into Building 32, the Nailax production area — in open tanks, posing an inhalation risk. There were frequent spills, allowing for direct contact with the chemical and absorption through the skin.

In the late 1970s, amid mounting worries about chemicals in the workplace, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers — since absorbed by the United Steelworkers — hired physicians to investigate conditions in union plants. Dr. Christine Oliver of Boston arrived at Goodyear in Niagara Falls in March 1979; once inside the plant, she learned of an apparent cluster of premature deaths from heart disease in Department 245. There also seemed to be a bladder cancer problem, Oliver was told.

Two years after Oliver’s visit, Rod Halford, then president of OCAW Local 8-277, wrote a letter to plant manager James Pearson. “It has come to our attention that four current Goodyear employees have developed cancer of the urinary bladder,” Halford’s letter began. He identified two chemicals of concern: ortho-toluidine and aniline, a raw material in Kagarax, which helped speed the rubber curing process and is no longer made by Goodyear.

Both were suspected animal carcinogens, Halford wrote, though only ortho-toluidine appeared to target the bladder. He asked Pearson for air monitoring and worker mortality data, among other things.

Pearson replied that worker exposures to the chemicals were “well below” allowable limits, and that neither of the two mortality studies conducted in the plant to date had addressed “cancer of the urinary tract specifically.”

More than three years before Pearson wrote this letter, DuPont had informed Goodyear managers that while there was no evidence ortho-toluidine had caused cancer in any DuPont employees, it had induced tumors in rats and mice during a study by the National Cancer Institute.

Attached to DuPont’s letter was a material safety data sheet it planned to begin using. It included the following warnings: “O-toluidine is cyanogenic [turns the lips and nails blue] and can be absorbed through the skin & respiratory tract, exposure symptoms may include bluish lips or fingernails, headache, nausea, or fatigue. Product may cause cancer in animals. Direct body exposure to fumes or liquid must be prevented.”

Current and former Goodyear workers say this information wasn’t shared with them at the time. Halford would become bladder cancer case No. 18 in 1992.

There was limited activity in the seven years following Halford’s 1981 letter. Wodka, who’d been a legislative assistant and staff representative in the OCAW’s Washington office for 12 years, left the union to get his law degree.

By 1988, after Harry Weist had transferred to maintenance, local OCAW officials knew of eight workers in Niagara Falls with bladder cancer. Wodka alerted the OCAW international, which requested an investigation by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health — NIOSH, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Things were worse than expected. NIOSH epidemiologists found 13 cases of bladder cancer in the plant, nearly four times the incidence rate in the general population. They documented a 27-fold increase in the disease among workers who had spent at least 10 years in Department 245. Suspicion fell on ortho-toluidine and, to a lesser extent, aniline.

Elizabeth Ward was the lead NIOSH investigator for five years. Now national vice president for intramural research at the American Cancer Society, Ward believes the cancer surge at Goodyear was largely preventable.

“There was evidence of the carcinogenicity of ortho-toluidine in animals, but the plant had not really taken sufficient precautions to reduce exposures to the workforce,” Ward said. “It really was a case of not heeding the evidence.”

Goodyear said, “We have followed effective industrial hygiene practices for decades in regard to this chemical.” Only one case of bladder cancer, it said, involved a worker who started at the plant after 1990.

Casualties

This is small comfort to people like Dick Prato. Prato started at Goodyear in 1963 and worked in Department 245 for 39 years. He was diagnosed with bladder cancer after urinating blood on a camping trip in 1995, making him case No. 19. The ginch came back in 1997 and 2007.

Prato rode out six weeks of chemotherapy in 1995 and another round two years later. “Every Monday I’d get the [drugs] shot up in my bladder,” he said. “You’d get that stuff at 8 in the morning and urinate it out by 1. You were wrapped up in a blanket, freezing to death, and yet sweat was just pouring off you. It was like the flu.”

The cancer lay dormant for a decade. “Then I went in to have my regular check-up,” Prato said, “and there it was.”

He underwent more chemo. At 72, he harbors a persistent, low-grade anxiety. “Sometimes,” he said, “I don’t even wait a year” to get a cystoscopy, an exploratory procedure, usually done annually, in which a tube fitted with a lens is inserted into the urethra. “I get scared and get scoped after nine months.” The aim, for anyone in his position, is to keep the cancer from breaching the bladder wall and metastasizing.

Bladder cancer is often survivable if caught early. Once unleashed, it’s horrific.

During the last year of his life, Joseph Nicastro, a retired Morton International worker who died in 2010, was punctured with tubes and perpetually sickened by chemo and radiation treatments.

“It was pure hell,” said his wife, Pam, who lives in Ocean Township, N.J.

Pam and Joe had met in 1993 and were married a year later. Joe was an operator at the Morton plant in Paterson, where ortho-toluidine was used to make dyes for gasoline. “He used to speak every once in a while about [co-workers] who had cancer,” Pam recalled. “I’d say, ‘I hope you’re wearing your protective gear.’ And he’d say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m wearing it.’ He showered every day before he left that plant. I think you had to.”

Joe was a “big, strong guy,” his wife said. “He had a presence about him.” In late 2007, when he was 64, Joe began complaining of leg and shoulder pain. “We just thought it was the aches and pains of aging,” Pam said. By early 2008, he was having trouble urinating. One day a “big blood clot” came out, Pam said. A cystoscopy detected “a mass so large it was outside the bladder wall. It was in his muscle.”

The cancer had spread to Joe’s bones. He lived another 22 months and weathered treatments that sometimes seemed worse than the disease itself. Steroids made him anxious and aggressive; chemo made him violently ill. At one point “the skin was literally peeling off his butt” from radiation therapy, a condition exacerbated by chronic diarrhea, Pam said. “The man was trying to sit on a toilet with open wounds.” Joe fell one time when Pam was out; she returned to the couple’s townhouse to find him on the floor, covered in feces.

Pam became Joe’s full-time caretaker, flushing the nephrostomy tubes that drained his kidneys and emptying the bags that collected his urine. She helped him go to the bathroom, gave him sponge baths, took him to countless doctor visits and tried to boost his flagging spirits. “He was so scared. His mind was racing,” she said. “He would always say he was sorry to me. I would say, ‘Why are you sorry? You had to make a living.’ ”

Joe spent the last week and a half of his life in hospice care. He died at 3 a.m. on March 4, 2010. He was 66.

Pam sued DuPont, claiming it failed to warn Morton — which closed the Paterson plant in 2002 — about the cancer-causing properties of ortho-toluidine. The case was settled for an undisclosed sum just before a scheduled trial in October 2012.

Pam said she used to be “furious” at DuPont, though her anger has abated somewhat. “I just felt like every time I would see [DuPont’s] lawyers, it was no big deal to them,” she said. “It made me sick.”

DuPont said it “settled lawsuits related to ortho-toluidine in order to avoid a long and drawn-out litigation process. DuPont's decision was not, nor should it be construed as, an admission of liability.”

Decades of alerts, DuPont’s knowledge

DuPont began making ortho-toluidine — part of a family of compounds known as aromatic amines, used in the rubber and dye industries — at its sprawling Chambers Works in southern New Jersey in 1919. More than two decades earlier, in 1895, a German physician named Ludwig Rehn had reported finding bladder cancer in three workers at a dye factory. Rehn had documented 38 cases in seven factories by 1906; German law eventually would force such operations to improve ventilation, provide workers with protective clothing and mandate post-shift hot baths.

In a 1921 paper, the International Labour Office in Geneva summarized the findings of Rehn and others in Europe, deeming it “absolutely necessary that in factories in which workers are exposed to the dangerous action of aromatic bases, the most rigorous application of hygienic precautions should be required.” Such precautions, it predicted, “will assure at the end of a few years the diminution and even the disappearance of the disease.”

Yet hundreds of bladder cancer cases emerged from DuPont and another early manufacturer of aromatic amines, Allied Chemical in Buffalo, in the coming years. Chambers Works, which opened in 1917, had recorded 489 cases by 1991, 453 of which DuPont viewed as “occupational” in nature, according to a company memo.

The alerts kept coming.

In 1934, G.H. Gehrmann, then DuPont’s medical director, noted the importance of giving highly exposed employees at Chambers Works annual cystoscopies. Medical examinations, he wrote, should “continue all through the entire period of employment, and in the case of men exposed to bladder tumor-forming chemicals, continue until death removes the final possibility of tumor development.”

In 1940, two researchers at Osaka Imperial University in Japan reported that ortho-toluidine caused benign tumors in the bladders of rabbits that had been injected with the chemical and rats whose skin had been painted with small amounts of it. They took this as evidence that the development of cancer in humans “can be prevented by keeping the skin as clean as possible.”

In 1948, Wilhelm Hueper of the National Cancer Institute warned in a review of occupational carcinogens that ortho-toluidine was “capable of producing bladder tumors” in animals. Hueper had published on the subject as early as the 1930s, when he was a toxicologist at DuPont’s Haskell Laboratory for Toxicology and Industrial Medicine.

In a deposition a half-century later, the lab’s retired director, John Zapp, dismissed Hueper, a German immigrant, as a “difficult, troublesome employee wherever he worked.”

Zapp admitted knowing by 1955 that ortho-toluidine had caused tumors in rodents. “Look, I don’t care if a chemical gives cancer to rats if it doesn’t bother the humans,” he testified in his deposition. “And I think that the rat is a poor indicator for bladder tumors.”

Zapp acknowledged that DuPont had the capacity to perform its own study of ortho-toluidine at the time but elected not to. It already had flagged another aromatic amine made at Chambers Works, beta-naphthylamine, as the biggest cancer threat to workers; that chemical, Zapp said, was gone from the plant by 1957.

It was also in 1955 that Monsanto, which had been buying ortho-toluidine from DuPont for at least 15 years, reported that some exposed workers had seen blood in their urine. Neither this development nor the animal studies created a stir at DuPont. Ortho-toluidine already was classified as a “no-contact chemical” at Chambers Works based on its acute effects, Zapp explained.

“Even if we had proved that ortho-toluidine was a carcinogen, I think our workers would have been protected,” he said. Indeed, a photograph in Modern Occupational Medicine, a 1954 textbook edited by Zapp and two other DuPont employees, shows a worker in a “Chem-Proof Air Suit” developed at Chambers Works.

Goodyear began buying ortho-toluidine from DuPont and Allied (later acquired by Honeywell) in 1957. A third supplier, Mississippi-based First Chemical, entered the picture in 1967. Three years later a Russian study found an excess of bladder cancer among workers exposed to the chemical; the study was translated into English for both Allied and DuPont.

In the United States, the National Cancer Institute found that ortho-toluidine triggered bladder tumors in rats and mice. DuPont followed the work closely. In a confidential 1975 memo, Haskell Lab’s assistant director, Blaine McKusick, wrote that faults could be found with the NCI experiment but suggested DuPont “regard ortho-toluidine as a suspected carcinogen” nonetheless.

DuPont waited another two years to send a letter to Goodyear and other customers, alerting them to a “possible carcinogen problem” with the chemical. The letter had little impact at Goodyear, said the president of the company's bargaining unit at Steelworkers Local 4-277, Ed Polka, who started at the Niagara Falls plant in 1979, the year the NCI study was published.

Workers had “no inkling” of ortho-toluidine’s potency, said Polka, who bagged Nailax his first five years. “DuPont knew beaucoup years earlier. None of this information ever came to us. It was a dirty little secret.” Goodyear’s position, he said, was, “You don’t need to worry about it.”

In its statement, DuPont said it was on the “cutting edge of the available toxicology and epidemiology studies conducted with ortho-toluidine” during the 90 years it and its wholly owned subsidiary, First Chemical, made the compound. “DuPont’s communications for ortho-toluidine were commensurate with the state of scientific knowledge, the applicable laws and regulatory standards and consistently reflected the scientific community’s consensus on the potential health effects associated with the product.”

‘Still a question’ for Goodyear

When did Goodyear know? In a 1991 deposition, the company’s former medical director, Dr. Clifford Johnson, testified that when the union alerted the company to the four bladder cancers in Niagara Falls in 1981, there was “still a question” in his mind about whether ortho-toluidine caused bladder cancer in humans.

“Did you notify any of the suppliers of ortho-toluidine to the Niagara Falls plant of this incidence of bladder cancer?” union lawyer Wodka asked.

“No, I did not,” Johnson replied. He hadn’t been convinced there was a looming crisis in Department 245. “I had no way of knowing whether four cases was a high number,” Johnson testified; he said he’d made no attempt to find out.

Dr. Steven Markowitz, a Steelworkers and former OCAW consultant, said Goodyear should have acted after the 1979 NCI study was published.

“Bells should have gone off about restricting exposure and about looking at human epidemiology — is there a problem?” said Markowitz, a professor of occupational and environmental medicine at New York’s Queens College, a medical expert in Wodka’s litigation and a co-author of the first NIOSH paper on the outbreak. “That was very strong evidence because it wasn’t just any old animal carcinogen. The NCI study showed tumors in the same organ as in humans — the bladder — in female rats.”

Goodyear said it “adjusted its systems and processes” when it learned ortho-toluidine might be problematic.

In fact, it made improvements at the Niagara Falls plant in the 1980s, upgrading exhaust systems and encouraging workers to wear protective gear instead of T-shirts and jeans. The policy was loosely enforced, Polka said. “The older guys were like, ‘You know what? I don’t want to be bothered with it. I’ve worked with it all this time and I got no problems. Leave me alone.’ Goodyear’s attitude was, ‘We’re making it available to you. Put it on if you want.’ ”

When NIOSH came into the plant in 1988 and confirmed the bladder cancer excess, people took notice. Goodyear clamped down in the early 1990s, making mandatory the wearing of chemical-barrier suits and respirators for workers performing certain jobs and fortifying pipes and pumps to keep ortho-toluidine from leaking. Workers who had to clean the rancid Sparkler filters were required to put on air-fed “astronaut” suits, not unlike the ones DuPont began supplying to its own people decades earlier.

Despite these measures, enormous harm already had been done. Dozens of workers developed bladder cancer from the 1970s on. Among them was a maintenance worker known for his obsession with cleanliness.

“That guy was so meticulous he’d wipe his chair in the lunchroom before he sat down,” Goodyear retiree Bob Dutton said. “Later on we find out he’s got the ginch. He’s gone. He died of a brain tumor.”

‘Antiquated’ standards, few inspections

Ortho-toluidine is no longer made in the United States. The four domestic users — Goodyear, Monsanto, Lanxess Corp. of Pittsburgh and AC&S Incof Nitro, W.Va., according to the Environmental Protection Agency — import it from countries such as Germany, China and India. The compound is on the European Chemicals Agency’s version of a blacklist, along with 143 other “substances of very high concern.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer considers it a Group 1 — known — human carcinogen.

Monsanto brought in more than 23 million pounds of ortho-toluidine last year to make herbicides in Muscatine, Iowa. In a statement, spokesman Thomas Helscher wrote that the company is “aware that ortho-toluidine is classified as a probable human carcinogen by OSHA” — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The raw chemical, he wrote, “is not handled at any of Monsanto’s facilities.” It’s shipped first to an intermediate manufacturer in Texas, which converts it to a more benign material that then goes to Iowa.

Both Monsanto and the intermediate manufacturer — which Helscher declined to name, citing a confidentiality agreement — take care to protect workers from ortho-toluidine exposure, he wrote. Levels of the chemical in the Texas plant were “undetectable” during air monitoring earlier this year.

Still, air concentrations of ortho-toluidine in Goodyear’s Department 245, even at the height of the cancer scourge, were mere fractions of the federal limit of 5 parts per million, according to NIOSH. That limit, like hundreds of others, hasn’t been updated by OSHA since 1971.

In 1974, OSHA issued a broad standard covering 14 carcinogens, including aromatic amines such as beta-naphthylamine. The standard required a long list of protective measures; impervious gloves, boots and air-supplied hoods had to be worn by workers in case of spills or during maintenance, for example, to keep the chemicals from soaking through the skin.

Ortho-toluidine wasn’t included. Workers kept dying.

In an unusually candid news release in October, OSHA, boxed in by industry legal challenges, restrictive court decisions and hostile politicians, acknowledged that its “exposure standards are out of date and inadequately protective for the small number of chemicals that are regulated in the workplace.” It urged employers to switch to safer alternatives or voluntarily adopt more stringent limits “since simply complying with OSHA’s antiquated [ones] will not guarantee that workers will be safe.”

Rigid policing seems out of the question. OSHA and its state partners must monitor nearly 8 million workplaces; together they have about 2,400 inspectors. “It would take us close to 100 years to inspect every workplace once,” OSHA chief David Michaels said in November.

Goodyear, for its part, said it has “systems and procedures in place for the safe handling of ortho-toluidine, which include double seal pumps, dedicated shower rooms, ventilation, and the required use of personal protective equipment.”

The company said it does biannual bladder screening for all active and retired employees. It also does pre- and post-shift urine testing for workers to gauge how much ortho-toluidine is being absorbed through the skin during the workday.

Wodka, however, had to bring a class-action lawsuit to force Goodyear to extend the screening program to retirees and other former employees. And urine testing for workers is infrequent, with no guarantee it will continue.

Older members of Steelworkers Local 4-277 speak of Wodka — 64, with a salt-and-pepper beard — with reverence. “Ask Steve,” they say when their memories fail them.

Wodka remains a union stalwart, representing the local. He joined the staff of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers as an intern in 1969. He and a New York Times reporter were to meet nuclear whistleblower and union organizer Karen Silkwood in Oklahoma the night she died in a car accident in 1974. Many believe Silkwood, an employee of Kerr McGee Corp. who’d been contaminated with plutonium, was deliberately run off the road.

In 1983, as a legal assistant in the Washington office of the plaintiffs’ firm Baron & Budd, Wodka worked on the first bladder cancer case out of Goodyear — Henry “Hank” Schiro, who was diagnosed in 1972 and died at 57 in 1986. He filed his first lawsuit against DuPont, Allied and First Chemical in 1987 on behalf of Goodyear worker Richard Sullivan, victim No. 3. (Workers’ compensation laws generally bar employees from suing their employers).

“My goal,” Wodka said, “is to see things through to the end … to make sure that workplace is made safe before my career is up.”

Today the Goodyear plant has only 43 union workers. Part of Department 145 — the old PVC section — has been torn down; the rest is used as a warehouse.

The plant still moves a lot of product with its stripped-down crew, Harry Weist said. A sign outside reads: “TAKE SAFETY TO THE EXTREME. WE MUST. WE WILL.”

A town in decline, fear of ‘the ginch’

Niagara Falls itself is in decline, a seedy cousin to its tourist-mecca namesake across the river in Ontario. Gone are Great Lakes Carbon, Electro Metallurgical and other plants that provided middle-class jobs for decades.

Downtown is mostly bereft of life, save for the Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel on 4th Street. A half-mile west of the tower, mist rises from the 180-foot-high American Falls and, beyond that, the slightly lower but much wider Horseshoe Falls in Canada. “You’ve got this beautiful attraction,” Weist said during a drive through the city. “I can’t believe you can’t do something with this.”

Weist and his father-in-law, Ray Kline, deliver auto parts to keep busy in retirement and make extra money — especially important for Kline, whose health benefits, like those of other former managers, were eliminated by Goodyear.

Both have settled claims against DuPont. Both have their bladders scoped annually for cells that could signal the ginch’s return.

“You always worry,” Weist said. “Is it going to come back?”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Ed Polka is president of the Goodyear bargaining unit at United Steelworkers Local 4-277.