At the time, the closing of the Missoula White Pine Sash (MWPS) company in 1996 seemed like the worst thing that could happen to its employees, many of whom had worked there for as long as 40 years. In retrospect, what may be worse is that the mill—a precision wood manufacturing company that used such chemicals as pentachlorophenol (penta) and dioxin to treat its products—is no longer in operation, leaving former employees to wonder whether they can ever prove that their growing number of health problems are a direct result of exposure to chemicals that they worked with day-in and day-out for years.
Since 1994 when the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) took over as the lead agency investigating contamination of the MWPS site (a Montana Superfund site) and the surrounding north Missoula neighborhood, various other federal, state and local agencies have been contacted. Most have declined to get involved, pushing the responsibility into another jurisdiction or arguing that there isn’t much to be done beyond testing the water and soil in the neighborhood. While this may be good enough for the residents of north Missoula, some former employees aren’t satisfied.
In 1996, three former employees made a request to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for health evaluation tests. The response from NIOSH read: “The requestors asked for biological testing of former workers to determine whether they have elevated dioxin levels. We contacted the Montana DEQ to gather further information. We have decided that a health hazard evaluation is neither warranted nor feasible. We also contacted the National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to discuss the possibility of a collaborative study, but neither organization thought it was warranted.”
According to Chris Cerquone of the Missoula Health Department, “NIOSH turned them down because the plant was no longer in operation, and would need the approval of the company to do such a study of workers.”
ATSDR has since received several verbal and written requests from Cerquone to do a health evaluation on the residents. “In their initial review this past spring, they felt that a health evaluation was not warranted based on concentrations [of chemicals] detected in the neighborhood,” he says. These concentrations were based on random soil and vegetable samples and air samples taken in the neighborhood.
According to the DEQ, Huttig Corporation—the owner of MWPS—is doing what is required to clean up the former mill site.
Beyond that, the company refuses to comment on reports of potential health problems among former workers.
Former MWPS employee Paula Craig has what she calls good days and bad days. Good days are those when she can go to the grocery store or concentrate on a book or a movie for more than an hour without having to stop and tend to her pain. Bad days are those when she cannot get out of bed at all. At one point, she had a “bad day” that lasted three years.
Craig has had all but 10 inches of her lower colon removed. She has had a hysterectomy. She has been diagnosed with chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. She has Crohn’s Disease, arthritis, migraine headaches, and open sores on most of her body. Craig worked at MWPS for nine and a half years. She also spent most of her life living less than a block from the mill. She is one of six members of her family who are sick with diagnosed illnesses and conditions. Like many of her former coworkers who now complain of similar health problems, Craig did not start getting extremely ill until the last few years. For former employees of MWPS, the pattern is clear.
On Sept. 27, as part of a grant from the National Organization of City-County Health Organizations, the Missoula Health Department, in conjunction with Bob Oaks, director of the North Missoula Community Development Corporation, invited toxicologist Gerry Henningsen to address the concerns of residents and former MWPS employees. Unfortunately, his talk focused more on the chemistry of dioxin and its impacts on the environment than on how the dioxins used for years by mill workers may be affecting their health.
“It is difficult to establish direct cause and effect with chemicals,” says Henningsen, and in order to get health evaluations done by a state or federal agency, there must be a proven pattern. Such cause-and-effect relationships are hard to establish when the environment in question no longer exists.
“There are more than 70,000 chemicals out on the market today and less than 10,000 of them have been tested. That’s how it works,” explains Bryony Schwan of the Missoula nonprofit group, Women’s Voices for the Earth. “They go on the market and then, if there is a problem, they get tested. The EPA is grossly underfunded and the Toxic Substance Control Act can only cover so much ground.”
Apparently, penta and dioxin fall into the category of chemicals that were put on the market and only later deemed dangerous. So what should former MWPS employees do?
As part of the recent grant, the Health Department and the NMCDC are now putting together a survey for all former MWPS employees and neighborhood residents. “If we can show a pattern, a trend … that the incidence of cancer and other adverse health conditions are highly elevated in this population in relation to another unrelated, unaffected population, then we have a better chance of getting ATSDR to perform the health evaluations on the former employees” says Lea Jordan, who works with Cerquone at the Health Department.
During last month’s meeting, Henningsen said that in order to get agencies to perform these expensive tests on former workers, there has to be a “screaming need.”
One former mill worker looked around the room at her friends and former coworkers and asked, “Well, aren’t we a screaming need?”