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Former GE Workers Sue Over Exposure to PCBs, Other Toxic Chemicals

June 21, 1994

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) _ Saying they were sometimes soaked to their armpits in dangerous chemicals, formers workers at a transformer plant are suing General Electric Co. and Monsanto Chemical Co. for $500 million.

Five workers or relatives filed the lawsuit June 8 in U.S. District Court on behalf of all workers at the Pittsfield plant in western Massachusetts who were exposed to PCBS and other toxic chemicals.

Among the five are the widow of a longtime worker who died of cancer and two other workers who developed cancer.

The chemicals at the center of the lawsuit were used for decades as fire- resistant lubricants in electrical transformers.

The suit contends that managers of the General Electric plant and their supplier, Monsanto, knew that the chemicals were dangerous as early as 1936. The suit says the companies concealed that knowledge from workers and refused their requests for protective gear for nearly 40 years.

Diane Herndon, a Monsanto spokeswoman, said the company had done nothing wrong and had ″properly warned about precautions which should be taken in handling of PCB fluids.″

Steve Moore, a spokesman for General Electric, declined comment on the suit Tuesday, saying company lawyers had not yet obtained a copy.

The lawsuit says GE forced workers for decades to ″routinely stick their exposed arms″ into the chemicals as they worked on the transformers. It also contends that company officials lied to state and federal regulators, and sabotaged studies of cancer rates among plant workers.

Because of the careless way the chemicals were piped throughout the plant, there were many spills and the entire building was saturated, the suit says. It says the plant used 400 pounds of absorbing chemicals weekly to soak up spills of the oily liquid.

The liquid carried a mixture of chemicals that included polychlorinated dibenzofurans, or PCDFs, which are listed as cancer-causing agents by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It also had polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which the agency suspects as a cancer-causing agent.

From 1936 until 1977, when general use of the chemicals was banned by the federal government, Monsanto shipped about 20,000 pounds a week of Aroclor, the company’s brand name for the chemical mixture, to GE’s plant to use in making transformer fluids.

In its heyday, the Pittsfield plant employed about 6,000 workers. GE sold the operation in 1987.

Such lawsuits are normally barred in Massachusetts and some other states, where workers must make their claims through the workers’ compensation system, according to lawyer Leo Boyle, a prominent personal injury lawyer in Boston who is not involved in the case.

Sidney B. Silverman, a lawyer for the workers, said, ″I prefer to make my arguments in the courtroom before the judge. If that is an issue, it will be taken up in court.″

The Monsanto spokeswoman said the material it shipped to GE contained one part per million or less of PCDFs. She also said ″the weight of scientific evidence, including many health effect studies, continues to grow and indicates that PCBs are neither extremely toxic nor carcinogenic to humans.″

In addition to punitive and other damages, the suit seeks medical care and monitoring of the thousands of people who worked at the plant and their families.

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