Sunday, July 30, 2006

Surfing, Chemicals and Cancer

Last December I wrote a story about how one of the biggest surfboard makers in the United States -- Gordon “Grubby” Clark, the "Howard Hughes of the Surfboard World" -- went out of business, blaming government regulation. According to the New York Times,
In 2003, Mr. Clark received a notice from the Environmental Protection Agency for, among other things, failing to safeguard workers against the accidental release of toluene diisocyanate, or TDI, a liquid catalyst and known carcinogen used in making polyurethane foam.

There was also the cost of workers' compensation, insuring machines of his own design and "a claim being made by the widow of an employee who died from cancer," he wrote.

"For owning and operating Clark Foam," the letter began, "I may be looking at very large fines, civil lawsuits, and even time in prison."
EPA, however, claimed that Mr. Clark was in compliance, and other surfboard makers, while admitting to a temporary surfboard shortage to to Mr. Clark's withdrawal, claimed that there were safe ways to make surfboards anyway.

Well, I don't know about the regulation complaint, but Clark was right about the claim of the widow of an employee who died. Last week the widow filed a wrongful death suit against Clark Foam Products:
In legal papers, Maria Teresa Barriga claims that her husband, Martin Barriga, and other employees ran with open buckets of toxic toluene diisocyanate sloshing on their hands, arms, torso, legs and feet.

During lunch breaks, Barriga and other workers warmed their meals in the same microwave used to heat the chemical, the suit alleges.

Toluene diisocyanate, known as TDI, is commonly used to make foam products and paint. When heated, the chemical becomes toxic and can cause severe respiratory, gastrointestinal and central nervous system problems. It is also a possible carcinogen, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Barriga's death certificate lists cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, inflamed and scarred lung sacs and arterial inflammation as causes of death. A biopsy showed that he also suffered from a cancerous chest tumor.
In a letter to his customers, Clark wrote that:
"About 20 years ago," Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors "came down on our TDI use very hard and more or less tied one arm behind our back."

OSHA officials said Wednesday that they hadn't inspected Clark Foam since 1990. But Clark said he continued to struggle to meet tighter standards of other regulatory agencies.
Sounds like maybe OSHA and EPA didn't come down hard enough.