The Toronto Star has published a shocking exposé on health conditions at a General Electric (GE) plant in Peterborough, Ontario. The plant now is up to code, but years of exposure to highly toxic chemicals have done irreversible damage to the health of many former plant employees:
A silent tragedy has ravaged a tight-knit community of Peterborough workers with hundreds of compensation claims filed for often horrific and sometimes terminal diseases — from brain to bowel to lung cancer. The cause, they believe, is prolonged exposure to a dizzying range of human carcinogens used at their former workplace, General Electric — where toxic substances sometimes registered at hundreds of times the levels now considered safe. One occupational disease expert calls the factory in its heyday a “cancer generator.”
The findings of an internal mortality study were severe, although GE ultimately shrugged those findings off with a follow-up report that claimed the mortality rate was not “statistically significant” when controlled for “other factors”:
In 2002, a GE-commissioned mortality study…found male employees were up to 57 per cent more likely to die of lung cancer than the general population and female workers up to 129 per cent more likely.
[…] Since 2004, when a government-funded health clinic assessed GE workers for occupational disease, there have been 660 compensation claims made to Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). Some 280 have been accepted; more than half have been withdrawn, abandoned or rejected because of apparently insufficient evidence that the conditions were work related.
Now, with support from their former union, more than 60 retirees who worked at the plant are challenging that determination, according to the Star:
Nine former workers interviewed by the Star, most with decades of service at GE beginning in the 1960s, described a workplace where asbestos fibres floated thick in the air, where open pots of lead and mercury dotted the shop floor, and where 23 massive dip tanks of varnishes and solvents used to coat and degrease motors belched fumes throughout the plant.
[…] Workers with the lowest seniority were lowered into dip tanks to clean them, despite the fumes being so noxious they would sometimes pass out, according to Jim Dufresne, who for many years formed part of the so-called labour gang assigned the dirtiest tasks in the plant. They were also handed the job of “plucking the goose” — removing asbestos from the roof of the plant’s Wire and Cable department by hand, he says.
It’s not GE’s first time in hot water over blatant disregard for health hazards. It’s also not the first time they have tried to evade responsibility. Perhaps most famously, GE spent decades dumping carcinogenic chemicals into the Hudson River, then refused to clean it up:
Beginning in 1947 and continuing until 1977, GE intentionally dumped approximately 1.3 million pounds of highly-toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Hudson River from Fort Edward and the neighboring plant in Hudson Falls (now closed.) GE also polluted the soil and groundwater under its plants and in the surrounding communities.
[…] GE tried for years to evade responsibility for this disaster. Former GE CEO Jack Welch…personally lobbied and pressured elected officials and environmental regulators against a cleanup. GE was finally forced to pay for dredging of the river to remove PCBs, which began in 2009.
Back in Peterborough, residents and former plant employees want justice and recognition from their former employer, but they don’t expect to see it any time soon:
“I doubt I’ll ever in my lifetime see an end to this,” says Carl, who lost her husband Art to colon cancer that spread to his liver, lungs and brain.
“I’ve said to my kids, you better make damn good sure you keep (documents) and don’t let it go. You know, because it’s the principle.”