The Militant (logo)  
   Vol.66/No.33           September 2, 2002  
Workers protest thallium poisoning of 65
TRAIL, British Columbia--Two former contract construction workers at Teck Cominco’s lead and zinc smelter here, Craig Koivisto and Rick Popoff--among 65 workers onsite found to have high levels of thallium--have recently died. The others who were poisoned by the highly toxic metal, a banned substance that was at one time used in rat poison, are anxiously awaiting the results of the coroner’s report. Both workers were in their 40s.

Since then, tests have revealed the subsequent exposure of 15 more workers to high thallium levels. A Canadian Broadcasting news bulletin indicates that this time the workers--who were performing the same operation as their poisoned co-workers--knew about the thallium but weren’t adequately protected by their safety equipment.

A byproduct of the lead smelting process, thallium can cause serious nerve damage, kidney failure, and blindness. In August of last year carpenters and welders working at the smelter, located some 250 miles east of Vancouver, complained of flu-like symptoms, including diarrhea, sore throat, and nausea. At first officials of the company and the Workers Compensation Board (WCB) told the workers their problems were unrelated to the worksite. But when the symptoms persisted, about 200 men were tested for thallium poisoning.

The 65 who tested positive had been doing repair and maintenance work on a boiler and furnace. The urine samples of many showed amounts of thallium 20 times the level considered acceptable. At least two workers--Dean Moon and Carey Bagg, who had worked on the same crew--are still too sick to return to work. At 27 times the allowable level, Bagg had the highest thallium concentrations of any of those tested.

The metal was released into the air when pipes in the smelter were heated, Moon told the Militant. Concentrations of between half a percent and 1.2 percent are considered to be within the bounds of safety, he said, but tests on the walls showed levels of between 21 and 29 percent. Concentrations were even higher, he explained, where the pipes were thinnest and needed most work.

The company did not warn the workers about the presence of thallium, let alone the fact that it can be absorbed through the skin. Teck Cominco was fined $270,000 for allowing the men to work in highly contaminated areas and for not disclosing the presence of thallium to the workers.

David Thompson, the company CEO, admitted at a September 7 press conference last year that although pre-work tests had been done on the air inside the boiler, no samples of the material being worked with had been analyzed. When it was finally tested, the latter showed much higher levels of the substance.

Moon, who is 24 years old, said that he still suffers from fatigue, short term memory loss, and pains in his hands and legs. Numerous doctors have told him that he’ll never be fit to work as a carpenter again.  
Union backing
For his part, Carey Bagg, along with his wife Nancy, is fighting to get the WCB to restore the benefits that it cut off in March on the alleged grounds that there was no "objective evidence" that he could not return to work. Bagg still suffers from insomnia, muscle spasms, abdominal pain and many other symptoms. "He’s not getting any worse, but he’s not getting any better, either," said Bagg’s wife to the Canadian Press news agency.

"There’s been no follow-up by either the WCB or the company. If we didn’t have the union fighting for us I don’t think we’d have the energy to deal with them,"’ she told the Militant. Both the Steelworkers and Carpenters unions have been working to see that the workers get the treatment they need and that the company and WCB meet their obligations to the injured workers.

Both Carey and Nancy Bagg stressed that they are anxious to make the facts of the thallium poisoning more widely known.

Beverly Bernardo is a meat packer.  
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