‘He had practically every malady that organic solvents could cause’

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Frank Lipari, 60, research scientist

Frank Lipari died in 2013 at age 60 after years-long exposure to chemicals as a research scientist. His wife, Nancy, pictured with him, said his mounting health problems engulfed every system in his body. Photo courtesy of Nancy Lipari.

Frank Lipari spent his career in an automotive research lab, working on experiments with chemicals. The chemicals, in turn, were working on him.

He inhaled them daily in his combined laboratory-office. He also inhaled colleagues’ chemicals, said his wife, Nancy, because his lab was the designated storage area and dumping spot. For 23 years, he came to work and breathed that air until his body could take no more.

Frank, a research scientist for General Motors’ technical center in Warren, Michigan, went on disability retirement in 2001 at age 48 after respiratory distress so severe he mistook it for a heart attack. His health difficulties mounted — memory loss, confusion, vasculitis, neuropathy, osteoporosis, heart troubles — until he died in 2013 at age 60.

“He had practically every malady that organic solvents could cause,” said his occupational-disease specialist, Dr. Michael R. Harbut, a clinical professor of internal medicine at Wayne State University.

GM spokesman Dan Flores said in a statement that the company’s “condolences and deepest sympathies go to the family of Dr. Lipari.”

“While we cannot comment on Dr. Lipari’s specific work environment over the course of his career, we can say that GM has a strong ongoing commitment to the health and safety of our employees,” Flores said.

Laboratory work — which employs more than 500,000 people in the U.S. — can be dangerous for a variety of reasons, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration warns. Besides chemicals, lab workers can be exposed to biological agents, explosive gases and radiation. Some hazards kill quickly. Others take time.

John Newquist, a safety trainer who worked at OSHA for 30 years, worries about college labs in particular. The ventilation systems he’s seen are usually inadequate, and “they don’t sample for these exposures” to make sure students and teachers aren’t at risk from the carcinogens and other hazardous chemicals they use, he said.

“How many people are getting sick years later? We don’t know,” he said. “Nobody’s doing research on this field.”

Nancy Lipari, a registered nurse who married Frank in 2000, said he worked with carcinogens such as benzene but did not develop cancer. Instead, doctors told her the constant onslaught of multiple chemicals seemed to have kicked his immune system into overdrive, “and then his immune system just started attacking itself.”

Frank sued GM, but he wasn’t able to get over a key hurdle. Workers in Michigan must show their employer deliberately acted to injure them.

Until Frank’s death, each day brought with it the unspoken threat of some new problem. Blood pressure spiking, then plummeting. Infection after infection, the last of which precipitated his death. And once, his wife said, he rolled over in bed and broke seven ribs.

“That’s how fragile his bones were,” said Nancy, who lives in a suburb of Detroit. “The calcium leached right out.”

He lost bits of himself year by year as body and mind declined. Activities he had to give up ranged from the big — such as his work, focused on emissions reduction, and driving — to smaller but still difficult losses, like golf and paying bills. He’d forget conversations he’d had, movies he’d seen, passages in books he’d read just the day before.

But at the same time, he doggedly studied astrophysics, a subject he loved, and wrote down formulas and other information to prove he knew it, Nancy said. He made her laugh. He wasn’t bitter.

What he wished, she said, is that he’d pressed harder for safer working conditions, such as a separate office and better protective equipment. He was an easygoing man who went along with the status quo. He also didn’t have the perspective on safety procedures that can come from working in different places — GM hired him right after he earned his doctorate in analytical chemistry.

Nancy wants workers to remember her husband’s regret.

“People need to be more aware going into things what the long-term issues could be … and not to just listen to their employer saying, ‘This is the way it’s always been done,’ but to question it,” she said. “It’s too late to question when you’re already sick.”