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Published: Thursday, 2/7/2013

DEADLY ALLIANCE: WEAPONS OVER WORKERS

Firm rewrote its role in Lorain tragedy

BY SAM ROE
BLADE SENIOR WRITER
The daughter and widow of Stanley Sobocienski visit his grave. Researchers in the 1940s traced his death -- and others in Lorain, Ohio -- to air pollution from a beryllium plant. But plant owner Brush has spread a different story. The daughter and widow of Stanley Sobocienski visit his grave. Researchers in the 1940s traced his death -- and others in Lorain, Ohio -- to air pollution from a beryllium plant. But plant owner Brush has spread a different story.
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LORAIN, O. -- It was one of the most mysterious public health cases in Ohio history: Fifty-one years ago, several residents here were dying from beryllium disease even though they had never set foot in the local beryllium plant.

Federal and state health officials investigated, sampling the city's air for weeks and X-raying 10,000 residents -- a fifth of the entire town.

The researchers' conclusion: Air pollution from the beryllium plant had caused beryllium disease in at least 10 people.

That was 1948.

Since then, the plant's owner, Brush Wellman Inc., has spread a much different version of events.

It has said air pollution from its plant didn't harm all of those people; rather, workers going home in dust-covered clothing were mostly to blame.

This information came to light, a Brush doctor once told an international conference, "after much painstaking, detective-style investigation."

Or did it?

A Blade investigation suggests this is one of several examples of Brush Wellman rewriting history without the facts to back it up.

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U.S. government and industry records show that Brush has repeatedly made misleading or unsupportable statements about past events relating to the dangers of beryllium.

At times, these statements were made to federal regulators or international scientists trying to stop beryllium disease.

In the Lorain tragedy, Brush officials cannot produce any evidence supporting their claim that air pollution didn't poison those 10 residents.

They have no study, no government report, and no retraction from the scientists who did the original investigation.

In fact, the U.S. government scientist who led the inquiry 51 years ago, Merril Eisenbud, criticized Brush's version of the tragedy shortly before he died in 1997.

"I think it's a very poor quality reporting of the facts.... I'm just trying to put it kindly," Mr. Eisenbud, the former health director of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, testified in a court deposition.

His study in 1948 found 11 victims in the Lorain neighborhood -- 10 who had contracted the disease solely because of air pollution; another case was attributed to handling dusty work clothes.

The number of recognized neighborhood cases would eventually exceed 20, with researchers attributing some illnesses to air pollution and some to contaminated clothing.

But Brush Wellman continued to say air pollution was not to blame.

For Brush, there is a motivation to dispel the belief that air pollution from its Lorain plant had caused beryllium disease, company records indicate.

One Brush document, stamped "company confidential" but recently disclosed in an Arizona court case, states that if the company could get the government to reverse its position that pollution had harmed citizens, "we might be able to eliminate beryllium as an air pollutant (from the official list of pollutants)."

Air pollution from the former Lorain beryllium plant (shown as it was in 1948) poisoned residents living nearby. Brush has repeatedly made misleading statements about the causes of the illnesses. Air pollution from the former Lorain beryllium plant (shown as it was in 1948) poisoned residents living nearby. Brush has repeatedly made misleading statements about the causes of the illnesses.
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And that would mean Brush would no longer be required to maintain expensive pollution controls.

In addition, the Lorain residents were found to have gotten sick at exposure levels far below what is currently considered safe for workers inside beryllium plants -- a finding that has serious safety and legal implications.

Brush Wellman denies it has ever tried to deceive anyone or rewrite history to suit its needs.

Martin Powers, a former Brush executive who for 26 years was largely responsible for what the firm publicly said about beryllium disease, acknowledges that some Brush officials have claimed air pollution was not a major factor in the Lorain illnesses.

But he says they were expressing their personal opinions, not speaking for the company.

"We at Brush have never officially taken a position one way or the other" regarding whether pollution from the plant hurt residents, says Mr. Powers, now a Brush consultant.

But that is not the truth.

In 1969, Mr. Powers himself wrote to the Consumer Protection and Environmental Health Service, an office of what was then the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, saying air pollution was not to blame for the Lorain tragedy. Rather, he told the agency, all of the citizens who contracted beryllium disease got it from washing contaminated clothes or other direct contact with the metal.

This statement, Mr. Powers wrote, was "the fundamental philosophy of our company" on the issue.

In addition, Brush Wellman in 1967 sent formal statements, signed by Mr. Powers, to Pennsylvania and New York state regulators saying that the notion that pollution caused the illnesses "was an erroneous one."

And when Brush was fighting against tougher federal safety standards in the 1970s, it told U.S. regulators in a report that "virtually" all of the community cases had been traced to causes other than air pollution.

That position was based on what Brush once called a "detective-style investigation." The person who used those words was former Brush Medical Director Dr. Otto Preuss.

But in a recent deposition, he acknowledges he has never investigated the Lorain illnesses, has never interviewed the victims, and has no evidence that disproves the original U.S. government study.

Dr. Preuss is now retired and living in Arizona. Through a Brush spokesman, he declined to comment.

The old Lorain plant, on 1st Street on the banks of Lake Erie, closed in 1948 and was later torn down. The spot is now a parking lot for the municipal fishing pier.

One person upset with Brush's version of the tragedy: Joseph Gorka. His 7-year-old daughter, Gloria, died of beryllium disease in 1948, researchers concluded.

Mr. Gorka says she was never exposed to beryllium other than from air pollution, and Brush officials have never interviewed him about her death.

"They have never wrote, called or anything," says Mr. Gorka, now 81 and living in Florida.

Stanley Sobocienski's relatives also dispute Brush's story. He died in 1946 at age 34, but doctors didn't blame beryllium because he had never worked in the plant. But when other people living near the plant became ill, researchers in 1948 reopened his case and concluded he had died of beryllium disease from the plant's air pollution.

His widow, Leda Denka, says he never knew why he was so sick. "He just thought he had a bad cold and cough and couldn't get rid of it," says Ms. Denka, 87, of Amherst, O.

A parking lot arrow marks the site of the former Lorain beryllium plant, which was eventually razed. A parking lot arrow marks the site of the former Lorain beryllium plant, which was eventually razed.
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Mr. Sobocienski's daughter, Cheryl Sanders, was 5 when he died. She now has only two images of her father: Him sick in bed, and the funeral in her aunt's home.

"I remember him laying in the casket," recalls Ms. Sanders, 57, of Amherst, "and I remember crying, and they would take me into the kitchen and calm me down and tell me that he was with God now."

Her brother, Stanley Jr., was 11 at the time. He remembers his father as a large, vibrant man who dropped to under 100 pounds. When he died, little Stanley's aunt came to school to break the news.

"I thought he would live for a while longer or get healthier, one or the other, you know?" recalls Stanley, Jr., now 63 and running the Bering Sea Saloon in Nome, Alaska.

There are other examples of Brush Wellman rewriting history.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Brush argued that it had beryllium disease under control and that there was no need for tighter regulations.

As proof, the firm said that among its recent hires, only two had contracted the disease, and both cases could be traced to accidents. They were "definitely preventable" accidents that "were obviously the result of human error," the company told federal regulators in 1977.

But Brush officials now acknowledge in interviews that they don't know for sure how these workers -- or any others -- contracted the disease.

In fact, they acknowledge it is impossible to know with certainty.

That's because no one knows how much beryllium dust constitutes a toxic exposure. Even if someone did, Brush does not monitor the air quality of every worker, every day.

So when workers are diagnosed with beryllium disease -- often years after they have left the plant -- it is impossible to precisely recreate their exposures and, therefore, impossible to trace their illnesses to specific events.

Mr. Powers, the Brush consultant, says the company's claim that it had traced cases of disease to accidents was based on "reasonable assumptions."

But he acknowledges "it is a dogmatic statement that can't be proved."

"And I would apologize for it now, but at that time we honestly believed that was the situation. We should have been more careful."

Brush has said that the historic X-ray program in Lorain to look for disease was the product of a "cooperative" effort between Brush and the government.

But in truth, Brush was against the survey and tried to persuade the government not to do it.

Records show that Brush executives had a meeting to discuss the survey with their attorneys, insurance company, and medical consultant.

One possibility raised at the meeting: X-raying the residents under the guise of a tuberculosis survey.

But Ohio State Health Director John Porterfield, who attended the meeting, rejected that notion.

In the end, the Brush group concluded that an X-ray survey would cause more harm than good.

They thought "all it would do would be to uncover such cases as might now exist and also might increase the number of claims that might be made against the insurance company...," then-Brush President Francis Sherwin wrote to the Atomic Energy Commission.

But he said Brush would cooperate if that's what the government wanted.

That's what it wanted.



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