Regulatory bungling endangers workers Bayport The Phosvel zombies weren’t the half of it. What began as a shocking tale of pesticide workers at one small Gulf Coast plant \(Obs., turned into a long and frightening look at government regulation of the folks who brought you Silent Spring. The whole thing began in early December with the Washington Post’s revelation that ten past and present employees at Velsicol Chemical Corp.’s Bayport plant were victims of a paralyzing nerve disease that occupational health specialists blamed on exposure to the pesticide leptophosmarketed by Velsicol abroad under the brand name Phosvel. Three federal agencies were already on the Phosvel case when the Post broke the story: the Environmental Protection Occupational Health and Safety None of the three distinguished themselves. After a quick first glance, it was easy to place the blameand everybody didwith the company. There was evidence the Chicago-based firm, a subsidiary of Northwest Industries, had suppressed results from in-house lab tests showing the phosphate-compound pesticide produced nerve disorders in test animals. One EPA chemist also accused Velsicol officials of trying to quash a government study in August, 1974, by threatening him with legal action unless he dropped his probe of Phosvel. Finally, workers at the Bayport plant say the company never warned them of the Where were all the federal watchdogs? dangers of the powdery pesticide and never required employees to wear protective clothing while handling the toxin. It was soon evident, however, that there was blame enough to go around; all three federal watchdog agencies had the information they needed to shut downor at least put a close watch onthe plant before Velsicol quit making Phosvel in early 1976 after a five-year production run. Wade Roberts is a reporter for the Houston News Service. OSHA was notable for its complete inaction. Although a former Velsicol employee says he filed a complaint about working conditions at the plant in 1975, Bob Griffin, director of the agency’s Houston office, says he has no record of the complaint. Even if a record existed, it would show only that the worker who quit after two days on the job in protest of lax safety standardswas notified by someone in OSHA’s Houston office that the agency was powerless to investigate his claims since he was no longer in the plant’s employ. Anyway, OSHA never inspected the Bayport planteven routinelywhile Phosvel was in production there. Although Griffm says his field staff is far too small to check on Houston’s many industries, an OSHA survey of working conditions at the plant was finally begun last month almost a year after Phosvel production ended. Better late than never. NIOSH’s record is scarcely an improvement over OSHA’s. The research agencya sister to OSHAembarked upon a Phosvel probe in February, 1976, after receiving disquieting reports from EPA about bizarre neurological symptoms among Velsicol employees. NIOSH promptly dispatched three investigators to Houston and verified symptoms of nerve abnormalities among several workers. Before leaving, Harry Markel, regional NIOSH industrial hygenist from Dallas, asked Velsicol to supply the team with additional medical and personnel information on employees exposed to the pesticide. After a monthlong delay by Velsicol, the records were finally forwarded to NIOSHand agency officials spent the next four months leisurely examining the data they had accumulated. Finally, a research team made a follow-up visit to the plant in late July and requested even more medical data on workers in early August. Then followed a three-month delay while NIOSH let Velsicol drag its corporate By Wade Roberts heels and cough up an occasional piece of information. As the delay approached the three-and-a-half-month mark, NIOSH finally saw fit to dispatch investigators to the plant, where they microfilmed the records they wanted. Almost a year after entering the investigation, NIOSH reached the conclusion that the size of the caseload of nerve disorders among 200 plant workers was slightly suspect. Finally, a search was begun for all past and present Velsicol employees to test them for evidence of central nervous system damage. Hous ton Post environment writer Harold Scarlett accurately diagnosed NIOSH’s problems in a Dec. 12 column, admonishing the agency for behaving “like a time-doesn’t-matter research agency.” In cases where people’s health is involved, “time does matter,” Scarlett wrote, and investigations should proceed with the speed of a fire brigade. EPA, however, came in for the strongest criticism. The Velsicol incident dovetailed nicely with the end of a tenmonth study by a Senate subcommittee looking into the agency’s regulation of the pesticide industry. Members of the Senate judiciary subcommittee on administrative practices and procedures seized upon the Velsicol case as a chance to study agency performance. They didn’t like what they saw. In 1972, EPA researchers had begun the massive task of reviewing and re January 28, 1977 11
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