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Chemical workers suffer paralysis By Wade Roberts Houston Production of the pesticide Phosvel was suspended earlier this year at Velsicol Chemical Corporation’s Bayport plant, but more than 200 workers who were exposed to Phosvel and who are now faced with a bizarre range of neurological disorders as a result of their labors won’t forget the toxin anytime soon. Ten past and present Velsicol employees are under treatment for a nerve disease resembling multiple sclerosis that occupational health specialists believe was caused by ingestion and inhalation of the pesticide. Two former Velsicol workers suffer from partial paralysis, and, according to a company report released by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health only “with the assistance of double leg braces and a walking cane.” A third former employee drowned in a swimming accident that his survivors say resulted at least indirectly from his work with Phosvel. Others who have worked at the Bayport plant during the five years Phosvel was made there have complained of constant salivation, sweating, vomiting, impaired swallowing, sleepiness, dizziness, blurred vision, incoherent speech, and loss of muscle control. After deciding Phosvel exposure was what the afflicted workers had in common, NIOSH opened an office in Houston \(Dec. those in the Velsicol work force who had come in contact with the chemical. The task hasn’t been as complicated as first feared, said Harry Markel, NIOSH regional industrial hygienist. In the first few hours the office was open for business, more than 30 terrified Velsicol workers showed up to make appointments for physicals. Phosvel is Velsicol’s brand name for the insecticide leptophos, a compound that has never been licensed for sale in the United States. It is widely used abroad, however, where farmers find it inexpensive and effective. In its pesticide form, leptophos destroys insects by ravaging their nervous systemsapparently the same thing it does to humans. There were early indications that leptophos might be unsafe. In fact, as far back as 1969two years before production of Wade Roberts is a reporter for the Houston News Service. leptophos-as-Phosvel began at the Bayport plantlab tests conducted for Velsicol in Chicago showed that the compound wasn’t very nice stuff. Chickens force-fed high doses of the pesticide developed severe nerve maladies, and two-thirds of the group of test fowl died before the end of the experiment. Velsicol sat on the test results. U.S. The Houston Chronicle’s Gordon Hunter, “It’s simply incredible that after seeing these results, they opened production in this [the Bayport] plant, and literally had humans shoveling the pesticide.” A far more alarming report tells of some 1,200 water buffalo stricken fatally in Egypt with nerve disorders when Phosvel was introduced to nearby cotton fields in 1971. Another 1,000 of the beasts were paralyzed in their hindquarters and had to be destroyed. Phosvel’s origins Velsicol’s Bayport plant, near the prosperous community of Clear Lake City, began its manufacture of Phosvel that same year, but it wasn’t for another three years that the first disquieting reports began to circulate. In 1974, Velsicol, a subsidiary of Chicago’s Northwest Industries, set about to convince the Environmental Protection Agency to register Phosvel for sale and use in the United States. While studying the firm’s application, EPA researchers came upon the first hint that something was wrong at the Bayport plant. EPA was still reviewing the broad effects of pesticides registered for domestic use under provisions of a 1972 federal pesticide law, and researchers told Velsicol executives that further study of Phosvel was necessary before its sale and use in this country could be authorized. Word of the delay angered the Velsicol front office, and the company sent a team of corporate officers to Houston to badger EPA administrator Russell E. Train during an August, 1975, visit he made to the city. Velsicol’s squad of corporate agitators dogged Train throughout his visit, interrupting him at press conferences and meetings with local leaders to admonish him for the delay of a go-ahead for Phosvel production. Velsicol board chairman Robert M. Morris, also in Houston during Train’s appearance, denounced the EPA chief for “dishonesty and lies” in the conduct of the Phosvel investigation. At the same time, Velsicol was doing what it could to convince EPA researchers of the pesticide’s unqualified safety. The company hired Dr. John E. Kasik, an internal medicine specialist at the University of Iowa to study the effects of Phosvel’exposure on workers at the Bayport plant. Kasik’s report, though, was hardly what the company had in mind. Instead of writing a whitewash, he advised Velsicol in June of 1975 to halt production of Phosvel until the causes of neuromuscular illness in several Bayport employees could be isolated. Velsicol ignored Kasik and his findings, reporting instead to EPA that three of the workers in question had multiple sclerosis, four others encephalitis, and three more “undetermined nerve disorders.” Meanwhile, two of the afflicted workers put themselves under the care of Pasadena physician George G. Alexander, who, \\after spotting evidence of nerve toxemia in one of his patients, urged Velsicol to end Phosvel production immediately. That was in October, 1975. Velsicol halted Phosvel operations at Bayport in January, 1976, alleging a drop in demand for the pesticide. But NIOSH medical investigator Shiro Tanaka suggests a less innocent rationale. Velsicol, he thinks, realized that EPA was preparing to ban Phosvel, and decided on the more seemly step of a voluntary suspension of production. The leptophos market at the time the company quit making the substance was a still-respectable five million pounds a year, and, in fact, Velsicol had just won a $1.3 million federal contract to produce Phosvel for export to Indonesia and Vietnam by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Velsicol’s obstruction The Phosvel production halt did not end the investigation; EPA researchers, increasingly alarmed at evidence of neural disorders among additional workers asked NIOSH in February to begin an investigation of the pesticide and the exposed employees. Markel, who led the NIOSH team, says the study disclosed a startling incidence of illness among Vesicol’s 37 employees. After physicians diagnosed the symptoms as suspected nerve disorders, Markel asked Velsicol for medical information on 16 employees, as well as the names and addresses of more than 200 past employees of the plant. This was on Aug. 5. NIOSH did not receive the medical data on the 16 workers until Oct. 13, and finally had to send a team to the plant on Nov. 17 to microfilm personnel records after the company failed to furnish the information. Markel expects the NIOSH investigation to be complicated by the absence of official exposure standards for Phosvel, which EPA has never set. He says EPA and other environmental agencies were still testing the product for effects at different exposure December 24, 1976 17