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Aerospace Workers Blame Chemical Exposure for Ailments

March 7, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ One former aerospace worker says she got lost driving on a road she used every day. Another can’t always remember her children’s ages. And a third likens her mood swings to a ″roller coaster, up and down.″

The aerospace employees all told a Senate panel Monday they suffered chronic physical and mental illness from exposure to hazardous chemicals.

An official for Boeing Co., which employed two of the workers, said the company was concerned for the safety of employees exposed to hazardous chemicals, but the chairman of the Senate Environment subcommittee on toxic substances, Harry Reid, rebuked the aerospace company.

The Nevada Democrat said he felt Boeing was ″minimizing″ the effects that hazardous materials can have on workers by pleading ignorance to the danger and emphasizing disagreements in the medical community.

Boeing’s vice president for human resources, Joseph Peritore, told the subcommittee there was no evidence to link an acidic resin formerly used by the company with workers’ health problems.

Peritore said the company nonetheless, out of concern for workers’ health, discontinued use of the material even though it was ″determined that the material presented no significant health hazard.″

Peritore said Boeing ″not only met, but significantly exceeded″ regulatory standards, and testified that the medical community was divided.

″The fact that we believed the material was safe became irrelevant,″ said Peritore. ″In the highly charged atmosphere that existed, we felt the only way to alleviate our employees’ concerns was to remove the material from the shop altogether. And we did.″

One witness, Deborah Forbes-Sutherland, 39, of Westlake Village, Calif., said she began working 16 years ago for J.S. Switzer, a company that distributes aerospace chemicals.

Telling the panel she almost died a year ago, Ms. Forbes-Sutherland said that when asked by customers if the chemicals were safe, she unwittingly told them, ″Yes, if you don’t eat them on your breakfast cereal. I lied to those people.″

Former Boeing employee Bonnie Faye Schrum, of Renton, Wash., said chemical exposure caused her co-workers to pass out, vomit, act as if they were drunk at work and feel like ″their head was going to explode.″

″We were discouraged from reporting this″ to the company medical department, she testified, and said workers were threatened with dismissal after complaining. ″You either worked with these chemicals or you did not have a job,″ she said.

″I’m not the same person I was five years ago,″ she testified. ″I can’t pump gas. I can’t go to the grocery store without getting sick. I can’t sleep at night, I can’t eat, I have no energy. I don’t know my kids, I don’t know their ages.″

Beverly McCormick, of North Bend, Wash., said she became disoriented from exposure to chemicals at Boeing, and once got lost while ″driving down a highway I drove every day.″

Lori Liberty, of Encino, Calif., who appeared at the hearing wearing gloves, said she was ″poisoned″ by chemicals while working at Lockheed in Burbank, Calif., and has been unable to work for two years.

Ms. Liberty, 33, said she has suffered from severe headaches, impaired speech, bleeding fingers, nails that fall off, and moods that were ″like a roller coaster, up and down.″

Afraid to have children because she’s worried about birth defects, Ms. Liberty told senators she takes 14 to 20 tablets daily for her various ailments, including medicine for depression, and sees specialists ranging from psychiatrists to a toxicologist.

″I don’t think I can ever go back to the job I enjoyed,″ she said, blaming the company for improper ventilation, failure to warn workers of dangers, a lack of protective devices, and using her as a ″guinea pig″ to try out new chemicals while tubes were attached to her to measure exposure.

She contended the company threatened to fire her when she complained.

Dale H. Daniels, executive vice president for Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Co., said the company ″recognizes that raw materials and processes in the workplace pose potential health threats.″

However, he added, ″When employees are properly trained and utilize the proper protective equipment, together with adequate engineering controls, the employees can work safely.″

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