Monday, Feb. 02, 1976
Tragedy in Hopewell
Dale Gilbert was delighted to get his job as an operations supervisor at Life Science Products Co., a small Hopewell, Va., firm that manufactured a pesticide called Kepone. His annual salary was $14,500—$3,000 more than he had earned in his previous job in a tobacco plant. Gilbert has paid dearly for his raise. Two months after joining Life Science, the handsome Virginian noticed that his hands had begun to tremble. By last May he had developed pains in his chest and stomach. He was hospitalized in June, and has not worked since. He suffers from liver and spleen damage and has become sterile. The pupil of one of his eyes no longer reacts to light, and he has become abnormally sensitive to noise. There is also a possibility that Gilbert—married and the father of three children—could develop cancer.
Gilbert, 34, is the first diagnosed victim of Life Science's sole product: Kepone. But as testimony before a Senate subcommittee in Washington emphasized last week, dozens of others are suffering from exposure to the deadly pesticide. Since last summer, doctors have treated more than 70 people—Life Science employees and members of their families—for overexposure to Kepone; some 30 have been hospitalized. More victims of this environmental disaster may yet be discovered. For 16 months before it was closed last July, Life Science sent its toxic wastes through the Hopewell sewage treatment system and into the James River, one of the area's sources of fish and shellfish.
Unheeded Warning. Kepone is a white powder that has proved potent against ants, roaches and potato bugs. It was developed by Allied Chemical Corp. in 1951 and manufactured, off and on, in Allied's plant in Hopewell. At various times, the company arranged with two other firms, Hooker Chemicals & Plastics Corp. of Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Nease Chemical Co. of State College, Pa., to produce it. Then in 1974 Allied contracted with Life Science, a new firm started by two former Allied employees, William Moore and Virgil Hundtofte, to produce the pesticide.
Allied officials informed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about Kepone's toxicity as early as 1961 and warned Life Science that the pesticide, which can be absorbed through the skin, should be handled with care. The warning seems to have gone largely unheeded. Gilbert insists that neither he nor his fellow workers were ever told that Kepone could be hazardous. Unaware of the danger, many of the employees did not bother to wear the rubber gloves they had been issued. Others ate their lunches off tables covered with Kepone dust. Says Gilbert: "Nobody said this stuff was dangerous. I was told it was not harmful."
The alarm was not sounded, in fact, until a local doctor, puzzled by Gilbert's symptoms, sent a sample of his blood to the U.S. Public Health Service's Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. Doctors there discovered the high Kepone level and notified Dr. Robert Jackson, the state epidemiologist and acting director of Virginia's bureau of preventive medical services. Jackson visited the Life Science plant, witnessed what he described as incredibly lax and sloppy conditions, and examined ten employees. Seven had symptoms similar to Gilbert's. Since then, doctors have examined 131 people who worked for Life Science at various times. More than half showed symptoms of Kepone poisoning, which include brain and liver damage, slurred speech, loss of memory and erratic eye movement. Recent studies show that Kepone also causes cancer in laboratory animals.
The Life Science plant was promptly closed down. Because traces of Kepone have been found in fish and shellfish from the James, authorities have closed the river—and its tributaries—from Richmond to Chesapeake Bay to fishermen. They are also keeping a watchful eye on the families of former Life Science employees; all of them were exposed to Kepone dust brought into their homes in the workers' clothing. Gilbert's wife Jan, 33, was recently hospitalized for liver and spleen problems, and although the Gilberts' daughter seems free of symptoms, the couple's two boys have both had minor eye problems.
Unused Authority. Gilbert and eleven of his former co-workers are suing Allied and Hooker for a total of $28.9 million (since they are collecting workmen's compensation from Life Science's insurer, they are prohibited under Virginia law from suing that company). The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited Life Science for four safety violations and fined the company $16,500, an action that the firm is contesting. Federal, state and local officials are also acting. The Senate's Agricultural Research and General Legislation Subcommittee will study the testimony at the hearings to determine how the Kepone disaster could have happened—and how similar events can be avoided. Virginia's Governor Mills E. Godwin Jr., the General Assembly, and the city of Hopewell are looking into legislation that will strengthen the safeguards against contamination of the environment by toxic chemicals.
That kind of legislation is badly needed on a national level. Chemists are introducing new compounds at the rate of more than 1,000 a year, and only careful screening can spot potentially hazardous substances before they get into the environment. But new laws alone are not enough to protect workers and the public from exposure to toxic chemicals. What is also needed is a willingness on the part of various agencies to communicate with each other and to act. Federal, state and local officials had ample authority to protect the Life Science workers from Kepone poisoning. No one exercised this authority until it was too late.
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Pain from Kepone disaster lingers 30 years later
By: Julia Buchanan , Staff Writer
HOPEWELL - It was the summer of 1974 when 18-year-old Frank Arrigo earned his welding license.
He was a top welder in the state back then and major companies, like Virginia Power, were requesting his services.
"I had big plans for a big future," says Arrigo, now 49. "But now I sit around and play guitar."
When he took a welding job that year at the Life Science Products Co., he knew little about the chemical manufactured in the plant - a pesticide called Kepone.
"Their chemist told us you could drink a cup of the stuff and you'd be fine," Arrigo said. "They'd say anything to you to keep you working."
The Allied Chemical Co., located in Chesterfield County, had been making Kepone since 1966. In 1974, it contracted Life Science Products of Hopewell to produce the white powder used to kill roaches and ants. Arrigo often worked 15- to 18-hour days in the plant.
"I came home looking like someone just dumped talcum powder on me," he says.
This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Kepone disaster that thrust Hopewell - the former "Chemical Capital of the South" - into a national spotlight. Shortly after Life Science employees complained of terrible tremors, weight loss and erratic eye movement, the plant was shut down forever. Dan Rather and his "60 Minutes" crew paid a visit, and the plant's owners found themselves testifying before Congressional subcommittees.
"Kepone really opened up awareness of how chemicals can affect the environment," said Dr. Yi-Nan Chou, a cardiologist who first linked the symptoms to the pesticide. "We are much more aware now of contaminating disease."
In 1975, Chou was referred a patient named Dale Gilbert who worked in the Life Science plant. Gilbert suffered from chest pains, but, after an examination, the cardiologist found no evidence of heart disease.
"I could not put everything together," Chou said. "I knew it was not a heart problem."
Chou questioned Gilbert about his work environment. When Gilbert explained that he worked with a pesticide, Chou became more concerned.
"I did not know what Kepone was," he said. "I researched it, but there was no information on it."
In those years, testing for Kepone poisoning wasn't easy or available nearby. Chou took samples of Gilbert's blood and urine, packed them in dry ice and mailed them first class to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
"A week later, they called me in a panic," he said. "They said, 'Get that man to the hospital immediately.'"
About two weeks after that, Chou says the state health department forced closure of Life Science Products.
Now that 30 years have passed, Chou still receives an occasional phone call from someone wanting to know more about Kepone. He believes he was just in "the right place at the right time."
"When the CDC called me, I thought, 'Thank God. We finally found out what's wrong with this man,'" he said. "I was astonished. ... It's a tragedy it happened, but I'm glad we found out about it."
"A Pretty Much Full Recovery"
Twenty-nine plant employees with Kepone poisoning were hospitalized in 1975 at the Medical College of Virginia. Dr. John Taylor, an MCV neurologist, was involved in their examinations, which included brain scans, liver biopsies and spinal taps.
"We were dealing with a new syndrome," Taylor said. "I think we characterized it pretty well after studying it from several angles."
Tests at the time concluded that the men did not suffer any dead liver cells or thought or memory loss. However, the strangest symptom, Taylor remembers, was opsoclonus - a violent jiggling of the eye.
"This was the first time we saw that due to a toxin," he said.
The men's tremors would later become known as "the Kepone shakes."
In 1995, 20 years after the controversy, Taylor called some of his former Kepone patients and surveyed them on their current health.
"They seemed pretty asymptomatic," he said. "But I didn't examine them. At the time we last saw them, they were getting better. We had determined that the Kepone was pretty much going away.
"We anticipated a pretty much full recovery."
A Call To Former Patients
Today, Arrigo lives in his late mother's home in Matoaca. He suffers from numerous illnesses and receives a monthly $900 disability check from the U.S. government. His ailments include, but are not limited to, scleroderma (a pathological thickening and hardening of the skin), osteoporosis, carpal tunnel and degenerative disc syndromes.
The cost of his medications each month is $350.
"I thought I was going to have a couple of operations and go back to work," said the former expert welder. "It didn't happen that way."
After the drama of Life Science faded away - Arrigo was part of the class-action lawsuit that awarded $2.2 million to him and 11 other employees - he tried to find more work in welding. But his Kepone shakes were so bad that he failed welding tests.
"I just couldn't do precise work," he says.
Nowadays, as he sits at home overlooking his mother's lush garden, he wonders whatever happened to the "Bureau of Kepone Studies" and why he was awarded only $22,000 in the out-of-court settlement. He wonders if his illnesses are Kepone-related. He especially wonders if there are other former Life Science employees as sick as he is.
"I'd like to find other men who worked with me," he says. "I'd like to see who is still alright."
In a telephone interview last week, Taylor said the 30-year mark would be a "pretty good time" to re-open the Kepone issue.
"It takes toxins a while to cause cancer," he said. "Now would be a pretty good time to reassemble the men and re-examine them."
Meanwhile, Arrigo will sit and wait.
"They don't tell me anything," he says. "But I plan on making waves 'til I'm gone."
He says he has been "let down" by a host of people and agencies - doctors, his former employers, the state and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
"Don't they want to know what happened to me? Apparently not."
The government outlawed Kepone production in the 1970s. Because the pesticide was constantly dumped into the James River from 1966 to 1975, commercial and sport fishing along 98 miles of the James was banned until 1989.
It's been reported that William P. Moore, former president of Life Science Products, died last year in England. Virgil Hundtofte, co-owner of the company, is said to be living in his native New Mexico.
* Julie Buchanan may be reached at 722-5155.