UNANSWERED PRAYERS AND QUESTIONS
The gloves came in all sizes. There were white nylon gloves and wrist-to-elbow gauntlets and men's cotton work gloves.
For ten years, from 1962 to 1972, a young mother named Patricia Smith would make weekly trips to the warehouse of the Motorola Semiconductor plant on 52nd Street and McDowell in Phoenix, where she would pick up cartons of dirty gloves that had been used by workers in the electronics plant.
With the help of her three little children and her husband, John, Patricia would cart the gloves to a nearby laundromat. The children would help sort the dirty gloves and load them into the machines. They would help pull the gloves from the dryers and stuff them into the cartons.
Then the mother, father and three children returned the clean gloves to Motorola.
The family might wash as many as 10,000 pairs of gloves weekly. For each pair, the electronics company paid Patricia up to 6 cents. Patricia was grateful for the work--the income enabled her to stay home and take care of her children. Today, their family home on 41st Street and McDowell sits next to the Motorola 52nd Street Superfund site. A plume of groundwater contaminated with the industrial solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, originates at the Motorola plant and stretches for miles to the west and southwest. TCE readings in the groundwater beneath the plant are among the highest ever recorded in the United States.
Widespread use of TCE was phased out by Motorola, an $11 billion worldwide electronics giant that has long been Arizona's largest employer, in the late 1970s after scientists began worrying about its health effects. Today, the federal government classifies TCE as a "probable carcinogen." What's more, solvents like TCE have been linked to leukemia, a cancer of the blood, and lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. TCE has also been associated with other health problems, including disorders of the liver, kidney and central nervous system.
But back when Patricia and her family were washing gloves for Motorola, they had no worries about the chemicals emitted from the nearby plant. "We thought they were very benevolent," says Patricia. "They were, from what we had read in the newspapers, a clean industry coming into the area to provide jobs."
Now Patricia questions just how "clean" Motorola really was. She wonders if Motorola released chemicals into the air that may have hurt her children. She wonders if TCE and other chemicals leaked into a nearby canal where the children waded and fished for crawdads.
She wonders, most of all, what was on the gloves.
Today, Motorola doesn't know what was on the gloves.
There are reasons Patricia Smith wonders.
Ten years ago, Patricia and John's only son, David, then 29, was diagnosed with testicular cancer. When doctors investigated further, they discovered that David also suffered from an advanced stage of lymphoma.
David says his doctors didn't bother trying to figure out whether the lymphoma preceded the testicular cancer, or vice versa. At that point, it simply didn't matter. What mattered was saving his life.
David survived. But in ten years, his body has never been free of cancer.
Then the ordeal began all over again.
Two years ago, David's sister Bunny contracted lymphoma. She, too, was 29 years old at the time of her diagnosis.
Patricia asks herself one question over and over again. How could it be that two out of three children came down with lymphoma?
How could it possibly be?
State and federal public health officials have no answer for Patricia Smith. Although the Motorola TCE spill has been monitored by state officials for ten years, there has never been a thorough public health study of the people living near or working in the Motorola 52nd Street plant.
Instead, the state Department of Health Services has conducted a controversial "risk assessment" of the site, as well as a cursory statistical study. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)--the federal agency responsible for health studies at Superfund sites--also performed a health assessment that could find no past or present health risks at the site.
New Times has learned during an investigation that those studies have been called into question by scientists across the country. Among the problems:
The ATSDR studies of Superfund sites have been criticized by a General Accounting Office panel of scientists for their scientific inadequacy.
The federal Superfund law prohibits the ATSDR from assessing all exposures to chemicals by limiting the agency's studies to "unpermitted" or illegally released discharges of toxic substances.
Both the state and federal governments based their studies, in part, on unchecked data provided by Motorola.
State health officials themselves concede that their statistics on cancer rates in the area are incomplete.
But without noting the documented limitations of all of the government studies, Motorola and state environmental officials cite them as scientific proof that no adverse health effects have been found.
Without adequate federal or state studies, affected citizens have suffered a breakdown of faith in their public health officials. Desperate for a complete accounting of health problems in their neighborhoods, these same citizens have resorted to their own amateur epidemiological studies.
The fact that the citizens are unskilled in matters of science makes their efforts all the more poignant.
And it begs the question of why federal and state officials did not mount the sort of scientific studies that citizens require for their own peace of mind.
In the absence of professional scientific analysis, ordinary people have launched unsophisticated surveys. Relatives of the ill, others who think too many cancers have occurred in their neighborhoods, former Motorola workers with mysterious illnesses and minorities who suspect that a Motorola plant in a Hispanic neighborhood was less than safe--all have launched inquiries.
Because they are ordinary citizens, not trained disease trackers, they cannot scientifically document the suspected spread of cancers and central nervous system disorders; instead they remain people who cannot explain what has happened to them, people who feel they must take matters into their own hands rather than trust the government.
@body:The newspaper photograph captures a carefree moment.
Three young boys wade in a shallow pond, hunting for minnows. The youngest child holds a bucket.
The caption beneath the 1977 photo notes that the Durkin brothers--9-year-old Billy, 11-year-old John and 13-year-old Jim--are playing in Scottsdale's Eldorado Park lake.
Like hundreds of other young couples of modest means, Kathleen and Jerry Durkin, the parents of the boys in the photo, had moved to south Scottsdale because affordable tract homes bordered the Indian Bend Wash, a natural playground for their children. The Durkins chose a home near Eldorado Park, one of several public parks on the Indian Bend Wash. The Durkins, who had a total of eight children, were not disturbed by the fact that the Motorola Government Electronics Complex (the so-called "Scottsdale plant") and several other electronics firms were less than a mile away from their house--after all, they now say, the electronics industry was thought to be "clean."
Now they have their doubts. In 1977, just a few weeks after the Durkins had clipped the newspaper snapshot of sons John, Billy and Jim hunting minnows in the Indian Bend Wash, 13-year-old Jim was diagnosed with lymphoma.
Eleven years after Jim's ordeal, his brother John also contracted lymphoma. John was 24 years old at the time.
Two brothers with lymphoma.
"I had always had the feeling I must have gotten into something somewhere. Then when John got sick, I figured John must have gotten into something, too," says Jim, who is now 30 and suffers lifelong health problems from the radical treatments needed to cure his cancer.
Jim Durkin now knows that in 1983, as he was recovering from his lymphoma, the north Indian Bend Wash area where he spent his childhood became a federal Superfund site. The Motorola Scottsdale plant, less than a mile from the Durkin home, is the largest of the four suspected polluters of the Indian Bend Wash Superfund site.
TCE was the principal contaminant of the aquifer beneath the Indian Bend Wash--the very aquifer that was once thought of as a safe, potable water source for 350,000 people, including the Durkin family.
In early 1981, drinking-water wells in Tucson were found to be contaminated with TCE after officials discovered that a plume of contaminated groundwater snaked out from the Hughes Aircraft plant.
Because of the TCE discovery in Tucson municipal wells, officials in Phoenix and Scottsdale tested their wells in late 1981.
Upon testing for TCE for the very first time, officials found public-drinking-water wells in the Indian Bend Wash area were contaminated with TCE and lesser amounts of other solvents. TCE in one well exceeded federal health standards by 44 times. That well was immediately shut off, and eventually a total of five wells were removed from service because of TCE contamination.
Officials do not know how long TCE was in Scottsdale's drinking water prior to being discovered. They do not know if it was in the water for five days, five months or five years. They simply do not know.
What is known is that the TCE had invaded Jim's favorite hangout--Eldorado Park lake, the setting for the newspaper photo. When all the fish died in the pond, state officials blamed TCE-contaminated water that had been used to fill the artificial lake.
Now there are signs warning residents not to swim or wade in the park. TCE can be absorbed by the body through the skin during swimming, wading and showering.
Officials don't know how long TCE was in the Eldorado Park lake.
Officials cannot tell the Durkins anything about what may have triggered their sons' lymphoma. Neither the state nor the federal government has conducted a complete health study of the people who may have been exposed to TCE and other solvents in this Superfund site. Without the benefit of a credible health study, Jerry and Kathleen Durkin ask themselves the very questions that public health epidemiologists should have asked long ago. Doctors have ruled out a genetic factor as a cause of the cancers, but Jerry, who worked with TCE and other solvents as an aircraft mechanic before the boys were born, wonders if he unwittingly exposed his unborn sons to toxins.
But in the next breath, Jerry wonders why neighbors who were not exposed to workplace solvents are sick. The Durkins say there is an unusual amount of cancer on their street, among their neighbors, at their church. A family over on Culver Street has three members--the mother and her two children--who contracted unusual and virulent forms of cancer, they say.
Kathleen and Jerry Durkin are not the only amateur epidemiologists who seek answers in the absence of sound scientific studies conducted by the state and the federal government.
In 1989 a Motorola worker who suspects she was permanently disabled by an exposure to workplace chemicals began collecting information on other Motorola workers who may have been damaged by toxins on the job.
In 1991 a theology student conducted an exhaustive telephone survey of the neighborhoods bordering the Motorola 52nd Street area, and came up with a staggering number of illnesses.
In early 1992, a state legislator, Tom Smith, walked door to door on Brill Street close to the Motorola 52nd Street plant. After Smith noted what he thought was an "unusual" incidence of disease, he asked the state health department to conduct a study of the area. The health department agreed, but the study was never conducted because Motorola and neighborhood activists disagreed on its format.
Last month an advocacy group for Hispanics began gathering information on health conditions of former workers at a satellite Motorola plant in South Phoenix, claiming that the plant was responsible for unsafe working conditions and environmental contamination that affected the health of the mostly minority work force. Motorola denies those allegations.
Motorola has repeatedly said there is no proof that chemicals used by its plants have ever caused ill health effects.
"The situations you are describing are frightening to people," says Motorola spokesperson Lawrence Moore. "Especially when you can't really point to the wheres and the whys. That is understandable. That they should look for a cause is also understandable. If I am struck by cancer--and I understand one out of three people are--the first thing I am going to ask is why. And then I'm going to look around for the answers. "That you ask the questions is reasonable. That you pose an allegation without something upon which to base it is another issue entirely. We know of nothing in our processes that would cause diseases.
"The safety of people who work at Motorola and people who live around these plants have always been of paramount importance," says Moore. "We really do believe we are a responsible corporate citizen and that we take the right steps to ensure that we are a benevolent presence."
Last spring Motorola's public relations office issued a communiqu titled "1992 Overview of Environmental Issues." In it, Motorola cites federal and state studies that found no health problems in either the Indian Bend Wash or the Motorola 52nd Street Superfund sites. "Motorola, the Arizona Department of Health Services and the federal agency responsible for the toxic substances and disease registry all have evaluated the potential health impacts. They have found no adverse impact on public health," the document says.
The Durkin and Smith families, who unbeknownst to each other are coping with the same misfortune, have reason to doubt the governmental studies that back up the high-tech firm's public pronouncement.
@body:The Durkin and Smith families are not alone. Health is the chief concern of most people living in or near Superfund sites, says Dr. Thomas Burke, assistant professor of the Department of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins University.
Despite the fact that health is a topic of intense interest to those who have been exposed to toxic waste, the federal agency created in 1980 to monitor health effects of people living on Superfund sites is dramatically underfunded. Last year, for instance, the ATSDR received only $50 million of the total $1.6 billion that went to Superfund.
In 1991 a panel of nationally known scientists reviewed ATSDR health assessments of Superfund sites for the General Accounting Office (GAO).
Health assessments are required by federal law at every Superfund site, and should be designed to "evaluate data and information on the release of toxic substances into the environment" in order to assess current or future impact on neighborhood health, develop health recommendations, and identify areas where further studies are necessary, according to ATSDR. The agency is also charged with conducting follow-up, in-depth health studies, maintaining registries of people who have been exposed to chemicals such as TCE, and updating lengthy "profiles" of health effects of toxic substances.
Burke, a member of the GAO panel, says the ATSDR's job of compiling profiles and registries has been good. But Burke and other members of the GAO panel were sharply critical of the ATSDR's health assessments.
"Because ATSDR health assessments have not fully evaluated the health risks of many Superfund sites, communities have not been adequately informed about possible health effects," the 1991 GAO report says. The report found the ATSDR's conclusions "overly general," "incomplete," "of poor and uneven quality" and "of limited use for indicating needs for follow-up health studies."
The GAO panelists also criticized the ATSDR for rushing through health assessments to meet a deadline imposed by the Superfund law. In the 15 months leading up to December 1988, for instance, the ATSDR wrote 785 health assessments.
"To produce this volume of assessments," the GAO wrote, "ATSDR had to ignore its own guidance requiring visits to sites as needed and limit its analysis to reviews of often incomplete or dated file material."
"The majority of health assessments written prior to December 1988 are pretty worthless," says Dr. David Ozonoff, an epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public Health and a member of the GAO panel of scientists. Ozonoff says ATSDR's studies, even in the wake of the GAO criticism, are "steadily improving," although still "quite spotty." One of the problems with the ATSDR studies is that they rely on data provided by the polluter or the EPA. The agency has neither the authority nor the funding to collect its own data, says Burke.
Another flaw, according to Burke: Superfund law prohibits the ATSDR from getting a "total picture" of chemical exposures to a neighborhood. The law does not allow the ATSDR to factor in health risks caused by a high-tech plant's "permitted" chemical releases, even if those releases are in violation of environmental regulations. Therefore, many toxins released into air and wastewater cannot be counted as health risks.
The May 1988 ATSDR health assessment of the Motorola 52nd Street Superfund site, although not specifically mentioned in the GAO report, is one of the 785 assessments that have been so severely criticized by the GAO scientists.
The ATSDR concluded, without visiting the site, that the plume of contaminated groundwater might "pose a health threat to local residents in the future," because the contamination might infect drinking-water supplies. Nevertheless, the ATSDR wrote that "no follow-up health study is indicated at this time."
"There are no indications in the information and data reviewed for this health assessment that human exposure is actually occurring at the present time, or has occurred in the past," the agency wrote.
But the information upon which the ATSDR based its conclusions was far from complete, New Times has learned.
The ATSDR did not mention the Turnage well, a private well on 46th Street southwest of the Motorola plant. The well had provided drinking water to an entire apartment building for more than 30 years. The water in that well was in 1986 found to be contaminated with TCE at a concentration that exceeded federal health levels by 450 times. However, the ATSDR in its health assessment ignored the highly contaminated well, saying "groundwater samples collected from off-site private wells indicated that at the date of sampling, contamination did not exceed drinking-water standards." The Turnage well also fed "Emerald Pool," a swimming pool that was owned by the Turnage family and was open to the public. The pool was the site of numerous social functions, such as graduation swim parties and Fraternal Order of Police galas. The Turnages, upon learning of the TCE in their well in 1984, sold their water rights to Motorola, which permanently locked the well. "Obviously, that is the kind of information that you'd like to have there to put before the people making public health determinations," says Burke, the GAO panelist and Johns Hopkins professor.
The ATSDR did not take into account Motorola's air emissions, which, in 1990 alone, were estimated by the company itself to reach 1.6 million pounds, according to a state DEQ report. "This estimated annual discharge rate . . . could have been ongoing for previous years," the state said. Because the chemicals in the air were "permitted" and "legal," the ATSDR could not assess their impact on neighborhood health.
The ATSDR did not take into account the fact that neighborhoods in the 52nd Street area may have been exposed to contaminated drinking water from the Indian Bend Wash wells, which sometimes fed the City of Phoenix reservoir on Thomas Road. City records show that the reservoir was contaminated with unhealthy levels of TCE in 1981. The reservoir furnished water to the 52nd Street area. (All drinking water is now safe, city health officials say.)
The ATSDR did not take into account the Motorola 52nd Street plant's releases of industrial chemicals, including solvents, into the city sewer. City of Phoenix records show that several homes had been flooded with chemical discharge from the plant when the sewers backed up, and the city itself warned of serious health effects. But because the wastewater emissions were "permitted" and "legal," the ATSDR could not assess their impact on human health.
After the GAO report was released, the ATSDR redesigned its health studies to include site visits and face-to-face discussions with the public, says Harvey Rogers, an ATSDR scientist.
Rogers says ATSDR may revisit the Motorola 52nd Street plant to "look into the past, present and future conditions" that may have had an impact on people's health.
"Now we do indeed address that," says Rogers.
"We sometimes meet with the community and get their health concerns. We aggressively seek input. Sometimes we get an insight into what [health effects] to look for."
@body:But residents living near the Motorola Scottsdale plant may not have a second ATSDR health assessment. This is troubling, since the agency's 1989 health assessment of the north Indian Bend Wash Superfund site raises far more questions than it answers. The report was written prior to the GAO's investigation of the agency.
Without visiting south Scottsdale, the ATSDR in 1989 evaluated environmental data provided by the EPA and concluded what the Durkins have known for years--that residents were probably exposed to TCE and other solvents in drinking water and the ponds in the park system. The ATSDR did not evaluate air emissions from the Motorola Scottsdale plant and smaller high-tech plants because such emissions were "permitted" and "legal."
The agency's conclusion was nonetheless alarming: "Since human exposure to site contaminants may have occurred in the past, and may currently be occurring (in some lakes in the parks) this site is being considered for follow-up health studies."
Three years after the ATSDR report was published, and ten years after the contamination was discovered in Scottsdale, the ATSDR has failed to conduct follow-up health studies.
Last spring Bill Nelson, the ATSDR liaison for EPA's Region Nine, which includes Arizona, told New Times that follow-up studies are unlikely because the agency has a backlog of other Superfund sites that have yet to be reviewed for the first time.
@body:Citizens, disappointed with the federal government's failure to investigate the health conditions at the Superfund sites, have been equally dissatisfied with state public health investigations. In 1990 the health department released a statistical study that spanned the years from 1965 to 1986. It announced it could find "no evidence of elevated rates of cancer, the health effect of greatest public concern" in the Motorola 52nd Street area. The health department also concluded in a separate study that cancer rates were not elevated in Scottsdale's Indian Bend Wash neighborhoods.
But Dr. Timothy Flood, a health department epidemiologist, publicly acknowledged that the health department's statistical base for these studies was deficient.
The health department did not study pediatric heart defects in the Superfund sites, although heart defects in infants have been linked to TCE exposure in a 1990 University of Arizona study. Pediatric heart defects have risen sharply in the Valley, however. Dr. Marian Molthan, a Phoenix pediatric cardiologist, tells New Times heart defects in newborn babies have increased from eight per 1,000 live births to ten per 1,000 live births from 1962 to 1992. Yet a state registry for birth defects only logs birth defects since 1986, five years after TCE-contaminated drinking-water wells were shut off in Scottsdale.
The health department did not include adult cancer incidence in its study of cancer rates at the Superfund sites. This is because the Arizona Cancer Registry, created by the legislature three years ago to track the incidence of cancer in Arizona, is not expected to provide reliable data until 1997. Largely because of pressure from doctors and hospitals, who objected to mandatory reporting of cancer cases, the registry's operating rules and regulations were not effective until January 1, 1992. "Cancer incidence," which the registry is supposed to gather, is considered the most reliable cancer data because it reveals where a person lived at the time a disease was contracted.
The health department used cancer death certificates for much of its data base. Flood has often said death certificates are not a reliable data source. There are two reasons. First, doctors who write death certificates of cancer patients sometimes list the cause of death as something other than cancer, such as pneumonia. Second, the address of the cancer patient listed on the death certificate may have been different from his address at the time he was exposed to a dangerous chemical.
Thus the health department did not count three of the four cases of lymphoma among the Durkin and Smith families.
"I didn't die," says David Smith, "so they didn't count my case."
David Smith's frustration at not being counted was evident at a meeting last week between neighborhood leaders and Dr. Timothy Flood.
"You say there's no problem," David Smith said. "But your information is not complete."
Flood responded that it would take "tens of millions of dollars" to conduct a thorough statistical study of the site. "It boggles my mind," said Flood. And he added, "I don't think the rates would be high."
"We could say just the opposite," said David Smith. "We could say we think the rates would be high."
There is no scientific reason to be "totally freaked out" about cancer rates in the area, Flood replied.
"How can you say that?" asked David Smith.
@body:While families like the Smiths and Durkins say they are interested primarily in the past, the state health department has focused much of its energy on the present.
In April 1992, the Arizona Department of Health Services released a draft "risk assessment" of the Motorola 52nd Street Superfund Site. In essence the study concluded that people living near the plant were not currently at risk for adverse health effects. This is because the groundwater is presently not being consumed. The state also noted that unless the groundwater was cleaned up, people in the future might be exposed to dangerous chemicals if the traveling plume of contamination ever infected drinking-water supplies.
But the state's first conclusion--that there is no risk living near the site today--is the conclusion that has been repeatedly quoted by Motorola and officials at the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
A so-called "risk assessment" is not designed to deal with the past, says Norman Petersen, chief of the health department's office of risk assessment and one of the authors of the study. A risk assessment "looks from the present time to the future. . . . A risk assessment says, 'If we don't change anything now, will anything bad happen?'" Petersen says.
But the EPA did not agree. In fact the federal agency believes historic factors should be examined. A May 1992 letter written by Mike Montgomery, the EPA liaison for the Motorola 52nd Street site, blasted the state risk assessment. Among the criticisms in Montgomery's letter, which was obtained by New Times:
The health department did not tell the public that the study did not assess the risks of "permitted" emissions. The health department factored in risks associated with TCE and other solvents but excluded several chemicals that had been detected in the Superfund site at low levels. The health department did not emphasize that young children, particularly newborns, are "especially sensitive" to the cancer risks of vinyl chloride. (Under the right biological conditions, TCE can degrade into vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen. Several test wells have revealed the presence of vinyl chloride in parts of the groundwater plume.) The EPA says it "anticipates" that health risks associated with vinyl chloride "will increase in the future."
The health department did not include health risks associated with the highly contaminated Turnage well, which furnished drinking water to an apartment building and fed a neighborhood pool. Frustrated with federal and state studies, citizens began conducting their own amateur epidemiological studies.
@body:Last year, when Jim Pourchot came home to study theology after spending more than a decade as a minister for the Campus Crusade for Christ, he found that little had changed.
The house where he grew up, a red-brick Hallcraft home near 47th Street and Fillmore, was exactly as he had left it. The original, dark-green linoleum still covers the kitchen floor and counters. The original metal cabinets still hang on the walls. And the green-flecked Formica table where the Pourchot family shared its meals still sits in the same spot by the kitchen window, looking out onto the garden where Jim and his friends played cowboys and Indians.
Pourchot had pleasant memories of his childhood in the east Phoenix neighborhood. But when he came home, things were less idyllic. It seemed to Jim Pourchot that an unusual number of neighbors were ill. Last October he decided to conduct an informal telephone survey of their health. "Much of what I do in life is search for the truth," says Jim Pourchot, who is given to theological explanations for practically everything he does.
Jim Pourchot is uniquely qualified to make telephone calls. During his tenure with the Campus Crusade for Christ, he says he sometimes made 200 calls a day. "I guess I just have the gift of gab--something I acquired from my past job description," he says.
Soon he had logged dozens of cancer deaths, as well as current cancer cases. Working from his kitchen table, Pourchot compiled lists for each neighborhood he studied. "Passed Away." "Living With Disease."
He estimates he phoned 175 families. In all, he logged 81 deaths, mostly from cancer. He tallied 71 cases of serious illness among those neighbors who were living.
It was not a scientific survey, and would have no value to a professional epidemiologist. Jim Pourchot is the first to admit this. But during his telephone conversations, Pourchot stumbled into an unusual pocket of illnesses on a small stretch of Brill Street. The section of the street in question butts up to the Motorola Semiconductor plant at 52nd Street and McDowell. Practically everybody on Brill Street seemed to be ill, Pourchot discovered.
There was, for instance, the McNamara family, which moved into the neighborhood at about the same time the Motorola plant moved in. Both parents died of cancer, and the children suffered from a slew of other maladies, including birth defects, kidney problems, autoimmune disease and cancer. (The plight of the McNamara family was profiled in the May 6, 1992, issue of New Times.)
Others on Brill Street told Jim Pourchot of more cases of birth defects and cancer. @rule:
@body:The rumors about illness on Brill Street eventually caught the attention of Tom Smith, a Republican state legislator from District 26. Smith's district includes neighborhoods from both the Indian Bend Wash and 52nd Street areas. He decided to investigate.
Tom Smith is a retired Marine Corps colonel who survived three wars. He was an infantryman in Guam, "got shot to hell in Korea" and survived three tours in Vietnam. After retiring, Smith moved to Arizona and became a school principal.
He is accustomed to taking matters into his own hands.
"When I heard about all this sickness around the Motorola plant, I went down to Brill Street and went door to door and asked them if they had any health problems," he says. "I did this to find out for myself if there was illness down there.
"I found a whole mess of people. I am convinced that there are health problems among people that are living and were living along Brill Street."
But when the state legislator informed state health officials about his survey, he says he was told that he was not a good scientist.
"DEQ and Norm Petersen both said, 'That's not a scientific study,' and I said, 'I'm not saying it's a scientific study. But what I am telling you is that I have walked along Brill Street and there is, in my opinion, an inordinate amount of people with medical problems,'" Tom Smith recalls.
Last summer Representative Smith finally convinced the health department to do exactly what he had done--to walk door to door and tally the illnesses of people living on Brill Street.
The so-called Brill Street study, however, has never been conducted for political reasons. When informed that neighborhood activists were accompanying the health department on the survey, Motorola asked to go along.
Led by neighborhood leader Norm Fox, the activists protested, saying that Motorola representatives might intimidate the residents of Brill Street, many of whom worked in the plant.
Motorola then offered to pay for the study, on the condition that it could choose the scientists.
The neighbors refused, fearing scientists paid by the polluter would bias the results.
All of this frustrates Tom Smith, who simply wants to know if there is, or has been, any health problem associated with contamination.
"I got to the point where if anybody said the words 'scientific study,' I was ready to shove my fist down their throat," he says. He is disappointed that the Brill Street study has been "put on the shelf." "These people don't trust the government," he says of his constituents in the Superfund sites. "I don't blame them and I'm in the doggone thing."
@body:Dolores Springer thought she'd landed a dream job when she hired on at the Motorola 52nd Street plant in 1980. Then 24, Dolores had never come across a job that paid $1,000 a month and had such good benefits.
She worked with silicon wafers. She says her employer did not tell her what the wafers were for. "I put little gold squares on wafers, one right after another," she says. "I have no idea what those wafers went into."
Springer says she was a fast worker. Recognizing this, her supervisor often sent her on errands to break the monotony of production work. In 1981, after Dolores had been on the job about a year, she says she and two other women were sent to a special unit to mix chemicals.
"The supervisor gave us paper shoes, paper gowns and rubber gloves," says Springer.
Springer recalls asking, "Why the gowns?"
"Just a precaution, that stuff could eat your clothes," is what Springer recalls the supervisor saying.
"She told us to mix one color bottle with another color bottle and she wrote down just how to mix it on a piece of paper." Then the supervisor sent the women into an "enclosed cubicle." The supervisor did not join the women, which bothered Springer at the time, and still bothers her today.
The next day, Springer says, "My face was puffy and swollen. I was so tired I couldn't get out of bed. I went to work too sick to even brush my hair."
But Springer could not work. Not that day or ever again. She was eventually diagnosed as having an autoimmune disorder that has since destroyed her muscles, leaving her permanently disabled. She fights to stay out of a wheelchair.
Springer does not know if the chemicals caused her disease. But in 1989, after reading about illnesses among workers in the semiconductor industry, she began to have suspicions. She learned that workers in the "clean" semiconductor production are exposed to hundreds of toxic chemicals thought to impact health, among them organic solvents like TCE, acids and toxic gases such as arsene and phosphene that fire up the ovens baking the chips. Among the illnesses, she learned, are diseases of the central nervous system (including the brain and spine), liver, kidney, and immune system, as well as minor symptoms such as headache, nausea, respiratory problems, fatigue, dizziness and eye and nose irritation. High-tech workers are also at risk for reproductive effects, like miscarriages, some scientists say.
The injuries are so frequent that electronics workers have four times the incidence of occupational disease of other workers, Joseph LaDou, a University of California doctor who tracks the health of high-tech workers, tells New Times.
Workers have reported so many illnesses, in fact, that the semiconductor industry itself in 1989 commissioned the University of California at Davis to study the health of its workers. The results of the study are to be released this December, says Kathy Garvey, a spokesperson for the university's medical sciences office of public affairs.
Motorola helped fund the study, but says it did not allow its workers to participate because of logistical problems. "The study would not have included all Motorola semiconductor products sector employees," says spokesperson Curtis Steinhoff. "Motorola was willing to have all of its employees participate in the study. However, this would have made the project too large."
"Motorola," Steinhoff adds, continues to "invest heavily in control technology and safety engineering in order to protect the safety, health and welfare of its employees and neighbors."
Motorola officials have frequently told New Times that safety of workers in the plants has always been of utmost importance.
This is not what Dolores Springer deduced during the few months she interviewed former and current Motorola workers, and duly recorded their stories on a small stenographer's pad. Springer was surprised to find one woman with a similar disease to hers. She was also surprised by the frequency of complaints of poor ventilation, and "fumes" that caused dizziness, headache and nausea.
A sample from Springer's notes: "Jean worked at Motorola in 1957, part of 1960 and 1961. Had ten miscarriages. White blisters on her hands. Persistent rash on hands, face, chest. Still gets these rashes. Suffers from kidney problems. One chemical that she used was 'trichloroethylene' they used it for everything. Especially for cleaning anything and everything. A bottle sat at all stations at all times. Supervisor told them one day it cleaned diamonds real good. So all the girls used it for that. One day she noticed her diamond was loose from the setting. Jeweler said the chemical ate the glue. When she returned to work the next day, she told all the girls not to use it and they stopped."
Today, Jean Stratton is permanently disabled with kidney, lung and autoimmune disorders.
What disturbs her most is that three of her children were born with heart defects. Parental exposure to TCE has been linked to pediatric heart defects in a 1990 University of Arizona study.
"They told me not to worry about the TCE," says Jean Stratton. "They treated it like water." Another name in Springer's stenography pad belongs to Elizabeth Torres, who worked at different Motorola plants in Phoenix from 1968 to 1985.
Torres has vivid recollections of her days in the semiconductor factory at 52nd Street and McDowell. "I worked in a small room with four other women," she recalls. "I sprayed black wax on silicon wafers, and the wax clogged the vents. The ventilation was terrible. The girl before me did the aligning, and passed the wafer to me, I passed the wafer to another girl, who baked it in the oven. Another girl took it and dipped it in acid. The next one degreased it. "The girl before me, the one who did the aligning, got paralyzed. Two weeks later, she got better. They never knew what it was."
Torres says she was considered a troublemaker because she complained about working conditions. She suspects this is one reason she was sometimes assigned to work at Motorola's satellite plants, some of which hired a lot of minority workers. One such plant, she says, was a plating plant at 21st Street and Mohave in Phoenix, in the middle of a Hispanic barrio. She says the working conditions were less than safe, which she attributed to the large minority work force of "blacks, Indians and Mexicans." "It was the dirtiest place I've ever been," Elizabeth Torres says.
Another such plant, Torres says, was Solavolt, which was also owned by Motorola. Solavolt manufactured solar cells that generated electricity from solar power. Torres says she worked in a room where glasslike industrial furnaces were heated with toxic phosphene gas. In 1984, Torres says, one of the ovens exploded. She inhaled the fumes, passed out, and woke up in the hospital.
Her central nervous system damage is such that she suffers multiple seizures daily, she says.
Like Jean Stratton, Elizabeth Torres rarely leaves her house.
Dolores Springer's own health deteriorated, and she eventually discontinued her amateur epidemiologic study of workplace problems at Motorola.
When asked about Dolores Springer's allegations, Motorola spokesperson Moore responded that the company could not comment on former workers due to privacy laws.
@body:Tupac Enrique does not know Elizabeth Torres, Jean Stratton or Dolores Springer. But he has heard similar stories about the Motorola Mohave plant.
He has become sufficiently alarmed to launch an investigation of health effects on former workers in the Mohave plant, which was owned by Motorola from 1970 to 1982.
Enrique is particularly interested in this plant at 21st Street and Mohave because it happened to sit near a South Phoenix community called "Golden Gate Barrio." Most residents of Golden Gate Barrio were relocated by the City of Phoenix in the mid-1980s to make room for an industrial park, but the scattering of the residents does not deter Enrique from conducting his ongoing health investigation.
Enrique, co-director of the Maricopa County Organizing Project, which describes itself as an advocacy group for the "Mexicano-Chicano" community, says a disproportionate number of Hispanics work in low-paying jobs in the semiconductor industry. And live around the plants. This, says Enrique, is "environmental racism." Which does not sit well with Motorola.
"We used sound environmental practices at our Mohave facility," Motorola spokesperson Steinhoff says. "We emphatically deny any claims of environmental racism regarding workplace exposure at Motorola." The South Phoenix plant workers underwent "rigorous" safety training which was exactly the same as safety training for the 52nd Street plant, says Steinhoff. Literature on safety was always available to the South Phoenix workers, he says.
Motorola has always operated safe plants, says Steinhoff, and the Mohave plant was just as safe as the other plants.
But a 1980 state report filed by a worker complained of numerous safety violations. The worker, Barbara Semko, reported that cyanide fumes caused headaches and nausea among workers, and that cyanide solution caused burns on the hands and faces of workers, according to the report.
She claimed chemical and water tanks overflowed into the women's rest room and made the floors slippery in some parts of the plant. She also complained of the extreme heat workers had to endure while working in the rooms with the ovens.
But the complaint was not unusual. Of the 22 complaints filed from 1972 to 1992 with the Industrial Commission against various Motorola plants, 13 alleged unsafe workplace exposures to chemicals, particularly from faulty ventilation systems. Workers complained of headaches, dizziness and nausea in the reports. However, Motorola was only cited once for ventilation violations by the commission.
@body:Donald Netko has never acknowledged to New Times during various interviews that chemicals used by Motorola in the past may have been harmful to the health of workers or residents.
But he is enthusiastic about Motorola's "toxics reduction program"--a corporate effort to replace dangerous chemicals with safer chemicals and manufacturing processes.
"We believe it's always been safe, let's just make that clear," Donald Netko says. "But because of our toxic reduction program, we emit less and we emit safer things. It's going to be even safer."
Netko, the company's director of Environmental, Safety and Industrial Hygiene and Chemical Control, is proud of a small card that he keeps tucked in his wallet. The card, issued to all Motorola employees, lists the company's goals. Like product superiority and customer satisfaction. Environmental safety is also a key objective printed on Donald Netko's card.
Motorola's environmental focus has not escaped the notice of the EPA, says Netko. The federal agency views his employer as a "paragon of virtue" for its elimination of ozone-depleting chemicals, he says. In 1992 the EPA awarded Motorola its Stratospheric Ozone Protection medal, he says, because of the corporation's worldwide efforts to eliminate ozone-depleting chemicals from its high-tech plants.
Netko says Motorola will completely phase out ozone killers by the end of 1992.
"By the end of the year, our emissions will be zero. Our usage of the chemical will be zero. We have as aggressive if not the most aggressive plan to do this," says Netko.
Ironically, freon and TCA, the ozone depleters Motorola is now phasing out, had been used as a replacement for TCE. These days, terpenes, a natural solvent made out of citrus peels, is replacing TCA and freon, says Netko.
The company is also experimenting with new manufacturing techniques that require no toxic chemicals, says Netko.
In addition, Motorola has volunteered to reduce by 50 percent its use of solvents and other health-threatening substances, such as the carcinogen benzene, by the end of 1995.
"As people become aware," he says, "industry reacts, the chemical companies react, and a lot of money is spent coming up with new products."
But despite its vigorous efforts at "toxics reduction," Motorola does not acknowledge that the chemicals it used in the past may have caused health problems among workers and neighbors.
Nor will Motorola discuss the need for thorough public health studies of those who may have been exposed to such chemicals.
"The need for health studies really isn't an appropriate area for Motorola to be addressing," says spokesperson Moore. "What there is a constant need for us to do is monitor our processes.
"We want to ensure the safety of people who are potentially impacted by what we do.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Gilbert Anti-Abortion Textbook Sticker Decision Didn't Violate Arizona Law
Fri., Nov. 27, 7:00pm
Fri., Nov. 27, 7:30pm
Sat., Nov. 28, 8:00pm
Sat., Nov. 28, 8:00pm
- Joe Arpaio's Escaped Child Rapist, Adrian Cruz, Back in Phoenix
- Democrat Kyrsten Sinema Calls for Visa Waiver Program Crackdown