NEW AIRCRAFT MATERIALS RAISE HEALTH CONCERNS
WORKER COMPLAINTS ARE MULTIPLYING AS AEROSPACE INDUSTRY'S USE OF COMPOSITES GROWS
Greg Braxton Los Angeles Times
December 25, 1988; Page h8
The American aerospace industry built a worldwide reputation for excellence by pushing the frontiers of technology. But its latest technological drive -- replacing metal with new plastic and ceramic materials that are stronger and lighter -- threatens to give the industry an image of a far different sort The scramble to develop and manufacture those new materials -- which make jet fighters less visible to radar, civilian aircraft less flammable and both more fuel-efficient -- is endangering the health of workers on the assembly line, critics contend.
Workers, union officials and some doctors argue that chemicals used to bond, treat and clean the materials, known as composites, are not properly tested, handled or supervised.
Employees complain of skin rashes, memory loss, severe headaches and debilitating fatigue. In the worst cases, workers charge in court filings and interviews, toxic chemicals have caused brain damage to employees at a Boeing plant in Auburn, Wash., and cancer-related deaths at a Lockheed facility in Burbank, Calif.
"We're finding evidence of organic brain poisoning," said Dr. Gordon Baker, a physician in suburban Seattle who has examined scores of ailing Boeing workers.
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), reacting to concerns, announced this fall that a Senate panel will investigate the link between chemical exposures and diseases on the aerospace assembly line. "This is a matter of life and death for these people," Reid said in a speech on the Senate floor.
The debate is bound to intensify with the increasing use of composites, which are resins reinforced with fibers of various materials, commonly carbon and glass. Although the aerospace industry is at the leading edge of this technology, composites are often found in automobiles and in sports equipment, like fishing rods and tennis rackets, as a replacement for metal and wood.
Aerospace companies ardently defend their practices and work safety records, and the medical evidence linking illnesses to the chemicals used in making composites remains incomplete and inconclusive. But assembly-line worries are on the increase, and workers are becoming increasingly vocal about their problems:
Bonnie Faye Schrum, a Boeing worker at the Auburn plant, worked extensively with a flame-retardant material, which contains phenolic resins and formaldehyde, before being forced to take sick leave. "I feel so bad," Schrum said in an interview. "I get so agitated at everything and everybody that I can hardly stand myself."
Steven Rascher quit a high-paying position for Lockheed in Burbank, where he worked on the top-secret "Stealth" fighter known as the F19, being built with composites because of their radar-avoidance properties. Continually ill with flu-like symptoms, Rascher said that he eventually left because "I want to live long enough to see my young sons graduate from college." He now works as a custodian at a high school near Sacramento, Calif.
Coralee Elder, a 39-year-old divorcee with two teen-age children, said that she has not recovered -- either mentally or physically -- since being overcome by fumes more than three years ago at a B1 bomber plant in Palmdale, Calif., operated by Rockwell International. "It has completely destroyed my dreams," she said. "I live one day at a time now."
Complaints total in the hundreds, and some workers maintain that the real number of those affected is far greater. Many employees, they say, will not complain for fear of losing high-paying aerospace industry jobs.
Workers expressed surprise, fear and anger at the turn of events that has shaken their middle-class lives and forced many to take sick leave.
For months, Boeing countered worker complaints with the argument that the Auburn plant was safe. Though it hasn't changed that position, the company did agree in early October to a sharp cutback in the use of the controversial phenolic resins at its Auburn facility.
"We are determined to get at the root of any condition that affects the health and safety of our employees, and we will continue to take a very hard look at every option to determine where improvements can be made," said Deane D. Cruze, Boeing vice president for operations.
At Lockheed, senior executive John Brizendine this fall broke a long corporate silence by issuing a statement that strongly defended company working conditions at the Burbank facility.
"I cannot emphasize too strongly that we have seen nothing to date to indicate the materials we work with are fundamentally unsafe or pose a health hazard, providing proper procedures are used," Brizendine said.
Under pressure from Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), federal health inspectors and the Pentagon have launched a dual investigation into Lockheed worker health complaints.
Composites in the F19 are designed to help the plane avoid radar because they create complex surface contours not possible with metal skins. Those irregular contours deflect radar pulses at oblique angles instead of echoing directly back to the source. The same materials also absorb the radar energy.
Reid, the Nevada senator, said that he will have the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, of which he is a member, examine the use of hazardous material at aerospace and defense plants. A hearing is set for early next year.
In aerospace manufacturing, powerful chemicals range from the little-known toxin, methylenedianiline, known as MDA, to formaldehyde, a common but toxic chemical often used as a glue.
MDA has been classified a "probable human carcinogen" by the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended more than two years ago that worker exposure to MDA be kept at the "lowest feasible limit."
The federal government still has not developed a workplace exposure standard for MDA, said to a spokeswoman for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
All too often, safety experts say, aerospace workers on these projects toil in improperly ventilated areas without proper protective clothing or legally mandated instructions on how to handle the toxic chemicals. As a result, workers may inhale the toxic fumes or touch the materials with bare skin.
According to Philip Landrigan, worker-health expert at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, workers generally have few protections against the health effects of new chemical mixtures.
"With many of these chemicals, the first species to test them is the human species... . There has been a systemic breakdown in the testing and systemic breakdown in enforcement," Landrigan said.
The manufacture of composites, though, won't make employees sick if they are properly trained and work in clean, well-ventilated, temperature-controlled areas, according to composite advocates.
Beech Aircraft in Wichita, Kan., has produced an all-composite plane known as the Beech Starship without adverse health effects, company spokesman Drew Steketee said. The Starship composites are made from carbon fibers mixed with epoxy resins and then heat-cured at temperatures of up 300 degrees.
"We don't think there's anything generically wrong with composites or the chemical we use at this company," said Steketee, adding that the company has experienced no composite-related worker illnesses.
It appears to be a different story at Lockheed's plant in Burbank, where conditions have sparked about 150 worker compensation claims. Some complaints come from workers who have toiled in the company's highly classified "skunk works," where the F19 is made.
One retired worker, Clyde E. Glasser, described the skunk works as a claustrophobic building with no windows or ventilation. Large fans on the floor only blew the hot air around, he said, while blowers used to clean the work areas filled the air with dust.
One worker suing Lockheed is William H. Phen Jr., 26, whom doctors have diagnosed as suffering from memory loss and an impaired thought process. Phen was required to work around various toxic substances without the proper training, ventilation and safety gear, and the subsequent exposure caused damage to his "entire body and psyche," according to charges made in court and workmen's compensation papers.
Some Lockheed workers have complained that government secrecy prevented them from describing -- even to their doctors -- the chemicals or the working conditions that have caused their illnesses.
But Brizendine said in his statement that there "is no conflict" between health and national security. Workers may discuss suspected job-related illnesses with either a company doctor or, if they choose, their own physicians, he said
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