The Cancer Belt
People around Port Neches like to say that the odor from the chemical plants nearby is the smell of money. But it could also be the smell of death.
Before he got sick, Carlos Dwight Stokes liked to hunt rabbits. He would usually go hunting at night, after supper, when the open fields near his neighborhood in Port Neches were covered with darkness and dew. Wearing faded blue jeans and carrying a bow and arrow, Carlos looked like the kind of teenager who knew how to take care of himself. He was broad-shouldered and big-boned. He stood an inch over six feet tall and weighed a good 215 pounds. He had blond hair and what his mother later described as “blue-blue” eyes. He was, as his father says, “strong as a mule.”
The fields where Carlos used to hunt lay between his parents’ house and the petrochemical plants. In darkness as in light the plants dominated the low, marshy landscape of Port Neches (population: 13,000) like skyscrapers looming over a city’s streets. In fact, when first seen at night and from a distance with their bright strings of lights arcing from distillation tower to distillation tower like suspension bridges, the plants seemed to be whole cities unto themselves. Up close they were even more awesome-living steel monsters belching forth smoke, fire and tumes.
Of course, Carlos Stokes and most of his Port Neches neighbors took the petrochemical plants for granted. The plants were neither fearsome nor inspiring. They were simply the area’s bread and butter, the place where almost everybody worked. The plant closest to Carlos’s hunting grounds belonged to Neches Butane. Right next door were the B.F. Goodrich and Texas-U.S. Chemical (now SYNPOL) plants. Together, these last two plants covered roughly a hundred acres and formed the largest synthetic rubber complex in the world. Also nearby were the Texaco asphalt plant and terminal, on the Neches River, and Jefferson Chemical (now Texaco Chemical Company). On the outskirts of Port Neches and in the neighboring cities of Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange were scores of other major petrochemical plants and refineries, the largest concentration of such plants in the world and the industrial base of Texas known as the Golden Triangle.
During the daytime, Carlos liked to go fishing near the plants. He even used to sneak over the fence at Neches Butane and fish in the plant’s reservoir—that is, until he got caught. After that, he stuck to fishing in the canals and creeks that emptied into the Neches River. He never ate any of the fish he caught. He just did it for the sport.
Carlos also went to school near the plants. The classrooms and playing fields of Port Neches-Groves High School ran parallel to the rubber and butane plants just a few blocks away. Thanks to the prevailing southeasterly Louisiana wind, noise and odors from the plants so regularly wafted across the school grounds that Carlos and most of his classmates barely noticed them.
Carlos graduated from Port Neches-Groves High School in 1968. He attended two years of vocational training classes at Lamar University in Beaumont, did a two-year hitch in the Army, got a job as a machinist back in Port Neches, got married, and fathered two children. But as he neared his mid-twenties, he became very sick. On July 20, 1974, after a protracted illness, Carlos died of leukemia at the age of 25. According to his father, the blond, blue-blue-eyed young man who was once strong as a mule passed away “all shriveled up like a spider.”
Carlos Dwight Stokes’s widow believes that her husband’s death was caused by exposure to cancer-inducing chemicals emitted by the petrochemical plants of Port Neches and the rest of the Golden Triangle area. Unlike most of his male neighbors in Port Neches, Carlos never actually worked in a petrochemical plant. But his widow believes that by growing up near the plants of Port Neches—by hunting, fishing, and going to school in his community—he was “bombarded” by the carcinogens that caused his death. One of a small but growing minority of local citizens who blame the petrochemical plants for causing cancer in the community, the former Mrs. Stokes bases her belief partly on three sad facts:
* Between 1943 and 1976, 9 of the 1662 people who worked at the B. F. Goodrich plant a few blocks from Port Neches-Groves High School died of cancers of the blood or the lymph nodes. Five of thosecases were leukemia, a cancer involving the white blood cells. The five leukemia deaths were nearly three times the number expected to occur in a similar-sized segment of the general population.
* Between 1964 and 1974, three Port Neches-Groves High School graduates besides Carlos Dwight Stokes died of leukemia. These four deaths were more than four times the number of deaths expected to occur in a group that size.
* Ever since they opened in the forties, the rubber plants of Port Neches and the other plants and refineries in the Golden Triangle have used confirmed and suspected cancer-causing chemicals, including chemicals associated with causing leukemia. There are many kinds of leukemia. The kind that killed the four high school graduates was acute myelogenous leukemia, which studies have associated with exposure to certain petrochemicals.
What is significant about Carlos Stokes’s widow’s ideas about her husband’s death is that if they are true, then it is risky even to live in the prosperous area where the petrochemical plants are concentrated. In other words, she is saying that whole communities—not just certain chemicals or certain workplaces—can be hazardous to your health. Statistics seem to bear her theory out. The four counties that make up metropolitan Houston (Harris, Galveston, Brazoria, and Montgomery) and the two that make up the Golden Triangle (Jefferson and Orange) have some of the highest rates of cancer death in the state. Texas as a whole is well below the national average in cancer deaths, with 158.6 deaths per 100,000 population compared to 174 per 100,000 for the United States. But the rate in Harris County is 179 per 100,000; in Jefferson County, where Carlos Stokes lived, it is 187 per 100,000. The lung cancer death rate in Texas is 38.4 per 100,000; Harris County’s rate is 48.8 and Jefferson County’s 62.1, both higher than the national rate of 42 per 100,000. The upper Gulf Coast is Texas’ cancer belt.
That raises some disturbing questions: Does the high concentration of petrochemical plants on the upper Texas Gulf Coast cause—or at least contribute to— the high rate of cancer there? Is then economic force that created twentieth- century Texas—the oil and petrochemical industry—coming back to haunt us? Does benefiting from the source of our prosperity require that segments of our population live at risk?
This year cancer will claim the lives of 420,000 Americans, including 21,400 Texans. Now the second leading cause of death after heart disease, cancer has been on a steady rise since 1900, when it was only the eighth. There are many theories about the reason for the increase of cancer in the twentieth century, including those that attribute it to genetic changes in the population and to overall increased life expectancy (which raises the chances of getting cancer in old age). But most cancer researchers agree that part of the increase in cancer is due to twentieth-century environmental changes, particularly industrialization and pollution. There is sharp disagreement, however, over how much of it can be blamed on these factors. Some studies estimate that as much as 70 to 90 per cent of today’s cancer cases are caused by sources in the environment ranging, from food and cigarette smoke to fumes from certain chemicals. The chemical industry claims that only about 5 per cent of cancer cases are related to industrial chemicals. But a National Cancer Institute study of cancer deaths in the U.S. found that rates were significantly higher in those areas of the country that have concentrations of petrochemical plants and refineries.
Proving a link between a specific chemical or petrochemical plant and cancer is tricky. Doctors know that cancer is an uncontrolled growth of cells, but they do not know exactly what causes it or how to cure it. Cancer inflicts its damage silently and invisibly and, in many cases, does not make its presence known for years. Researchers believe cancer may result from a variety and combination of factors—age, genetics, environment, exposure period—that vary in potency depending on the individual. Different chemicals and combinations of chemicals may have different effects from person to person. Still, when too many cancer deaths of the same or a similar type continue to occur in various groups of people exposed to a particular chemical, a strong circumstantial case that the chemical is at fault begins to build. Such chemicals are called carcinogens.
Nearly all those concerned acknowledge that plants producing synthetic rubber and other petrochemicals use or have used known carcinogens in their manufacturing processes. But scientists disagree over which chemicals may be cancer-causing and which are not. The evidence about petrochemicals is nowhere near as overwhelming as the evidence about, say, cigarette smoking. On the other hand, it is clear that petrochemical workers are not toying with substances as benign as milk and cookies. Benzene, for example, which has been used in synthetic rubber manufacturing, in gasoline refining, and in dozens of products from paint thinner to printer’s ink, has been recognized as a health hazard since the 1890s and is now listed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) as a “confirmed carcinogen” known to be associated with the development of leukemia.
Some scientists and the perrochemica; industry in general argue that chemical; have “threshold limit values” (TLVs) of exposure below which the chemicals do not have carcinogenic effects. These values are often expressed in terms of air sample measures, such as pans per million (ppm) or parts per billion (ppb). Other scientists, however, say there is no way of establishing a safe level of exposure to any carcinogen. In either case, there is no doubt that those who live near petrochemical plants are exposed to many of the same chemicals as those who actually work in the plants. A study by the Stanford Research Institute found that six million people living in the general vicinity of petrochemical plants in Texas, California, Louisiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey were exposed to atmospheric benzene in the 0.1 to 1 ppb range. The study also found that the 64,000 people who lived closest to the plants were exposed to atmospheric benzene concentrations as high as 2 ppb. These exposures are considerably below the current federal standard of 10 ppm for benzene. But government health and safety agencies have tried unsuccessfully to lower the standard to 1 ppm, and if those who challenge the concept of TLVs are right, any exposure to benzene should be avoided.
The scientific debate aside, industrial cancer is a touchy subject. Neither the companies that manage the plants nor the people who work in them like to talk about it, much less take action. In fact, a recurring theme in the history of petrochemicals and cancer—and the history of the Port Neches cases—is the reluctance of chemical company employees and their relatives to bite the hand that feeds them. The story of Carlos Dwight Stokes and the “community cancer” cases of Port Neches does not answer all the questions about cancer and petrochemical plants. But it does tell a great deal about what the petrochemical companies, federal agencies, the State of Texas, local governments, and private citizens are doing—and not doing—to investigate and combat the suspected health hazards of the Gulf Coast cancer belt.
The story really begins 49 years before the birth of Carlos Dwight Stokes, on January 10, 1901, when a gusher of an oil well came in at Spindlstop outside Beaumont and the Golden Triangle became the birthplace of the modern oil industry. As the Spindletop Monument rightly notes, the well ushered in “a new era in civilization.” The first phase of that era was symbolized by the automobile. The second phase has been symbolized by the manufacture of petrochemicals, the alchemy of the twentieth century that turns crude oil into everything from plastic heart pumps and rubber tires to polyester clothing. The concentration of oil refineries in the Golden Triangle has been increasing ever since Spindletop, but the first big petrochemical plants—the installations that made not just gasoline but all sorts of plastics and synthetics—came in with World War II. The Golden Triangle, nestled by the waters of the Sabine and Neches rivers and Sabine Lake in the far southeastern corner of the state, offered a man-enhanced inland harbor with access to the Gulf of Mexico as well as proximity to the major oil fields of Texas and Louisiana. The big oil companies and the U.S. government recognized the area’s vast potential as an industrial center.
In the early forties the government, badly needing rubber for the war effort, decided to build the world’s largest synthetic rubber plant in Port Neches, a riverside hamlet in the middle of the Golden Triangle. Though owned by the government, the plant was operated by private companies—first Goodrich, then Firestone as well, then U.S. Rubber, Gulf, and Texaco. Within the chain link fence tnai enclosed the plant was a series of steel tanks and columns and chemical reactors and process rooms whose features seemed drawn from a science fiction novel. The raw material that went into the plant was two chemicals: styrene, a liquid, and butadiene, a gas. The stuff that came out of it was a solid—little flakes of rubber crushed and packed into 75-pound bales. In between, the styrene and butadiene were mixed with a soap solution in five-thousand-gallon glass-lined catalytic reactor vessels. After a fourteen-hour run through the reactors, what came out was a milky liquid that was rubber in latex form, as well as quantities of unused styrene and butadiene. The chemicals were sent back to a recovery unit, and the latex went on to a process building, where it was fed into blend tanks and mixed with antioxidants. From the blend tanks the latex flowed into a coagulation unit to be combined with water, acid, and salt solutions. At this point the rubber became chunky like a sponge. It was then sent to dryer rooms, where it was dried out with applications of heat. Finally, a hydraulic machine compressed the chunks of rubber into bales, which were then loaded onto railroad cars and shipped away to be made into tires and thousands of other styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR) products that would spur America on to victory.
For all its wondrousness, this synthetic-rubber-making process involved some rather ominous chemical compounds. One of them was benzene, a basic component of styrene, which in turn was a basic component of SBR. As early as 1897 a German scientist recognized benzene as a skin irritant to both humans and animals. From the twenties through the forties European researchers published several studies linking exposure to benzene to the development of leukemia. But in the United States there was not much scientific literature on the ill effects of benzene, and American industry was using it widely. In gasoline refining, which took place at several plants in the Port Neches vicinity, benzene was a major by-product.
The synthetic-rubber-making recipe at Goodrich also required a purple, powdery chemical called phenylbetanaphthylamine (PBNA). PBNA was used to retard oxidation and was mixed with the latex just before coagulation. Part of a chemical family known as aromatic amines, PBNA was itself derived from a chemical called betanaphthylamine, or BNA. BNA had also been studied by the Germans back in the 1890s; they found a link between BNA exposure and bladder cancer. In the twenties English researchers attempted to detoxify BNA but discovered that people exposed to it still showed a high rate of bladder cancer. Just before World War II a Du Pont chemist reconfirmed that BNA has carcinogenic effects. Then, as the war intensified demand for synthetic rubber, Goodrich chemists mixed BNA with phenyl to create PBNA. According to one former Goodrich employee now suing the company, Goodrich told its employees that PBNA was not toxic even though the company had not done any studies on the chemical and did not really know whether it was toxic or not.
Both government and industry scientists attribute the failure to test PBNA to the rushed atmosphere of World War II and to the fact that it was not standard procedure to test chemicals at the time. As Dr. Walter Harris of Uniroyal puts it, “In those days, people didn’t know chemicals had long-term effects. It just wasn’t part of their thinking, especially not with the war effort going on.”
The synihetic-rubber-making process also produced a by-product that some of the men at the plant referred to as “gunk.” Gunk was a black, gummy substance that was always clogging up the dryers. It was a serious maintenance problem because cleaning it out required shutting down the production line. Then the gunk had to be taken outside and burned. No one knew exactly what the stuff was, and hence the unscientific name.
According to several current and former petrochemical plant employees, in the early days plant safety precautions in Port Neches and all along the Texas Gulf Coast were stringent where accident prevention was concerned but haphazard about exposure to chemicals. During plant shutdowns men worked on valves and pipes without gloves. At some plants they even washed their hands in solvents containing benzene, since, like gasoline, it effectively removed grease and grime. At night the plant workers went home with the sharp smell of styrene and the sweet odor of butadiene all over them. Their wives would make them peel off their clothes at the door, but many say the stench of the rubber plant never really left their husbands’ hair and skin.
In fact, the smell of the plants was the first thing newcomers to Port Neches noticed: Port Neches and the rest of the Golden Triangle exuded stenches that were described as smelling like anything from burning cabbage to burning skunk. One Port Neches woman whose family migrated to the area recalls that because the odor hit her when she crossed the bridge at the state line, she and her sisters began to call their new home “stinky Texas.” In Port Neches the odors emanated in part from the dryers in the rubber plant, which were vented right into the atmosphere. Vapors also came off the chemical tanks in the half-open pigment building, where solutions were prepared for the reactors.
Besides the stench, life in the Golden Triangle carried odder hazards. There were days when many of the residents of Port Neches and the surrounding towns woke up to find that the paint on their houses had turned black from the sulfur compounds emitted by some of the nearby plants. But such episodes hardly outweighed the primary attractions of the petrochemical plants: jobs and money. Houses could always be repainted. And after a while people began not to notice the smell. What was more, no one suspected—or wanted to suspect—that living near petrochemical plants might be not just unpleasant but dangerous as well.
Appropriately enough, the first warning of possible health hazards occurred only when a problem developed that threatened to devastate the operating efficiency of the plants. About a year after they opened, the synthetic rubber plants in Port Neches and elsewhere began to produce an unintended by-product nicknamed “popcorn polymers.” This substance, a compound of styrene and butadiene, got its name because it was white and hard and resembled kernels of popcorn. As time passed, the production of popcorn polymers increased. They began to clog pipelines, storage tanks, and distilling columns and even buckled con- densers and bent pipes. Soon it became necessary to shut down the plant every so often to clean out the popcorn polymers.
In 1947-48 a team of scientists from Johns Hopkins University conducted a government-sponsored study of the popcorn polymer problem at several rubber plants, aimed at finding a way to stop the growth of popcorn polymers. Among the plants studied was the Goodrich plant in Port Neches. In the course of its research, the Hopkins team found that the popcorn polymers were created by the formation of butadiene peroxide, which in turn was formed by an unintended reaction between butadiene and the peroxides used in the rubber-making process. In fact, the study showed that the Goodrich plant in Port Neches had the second-highest butadiene peroxide level of all plants in the nation, with 1560 ppm in samples, compared to an average of 150 to 700 ppm in other plants. As the researchers pointed out, the peroxides that formed the popcorn polymers were highly explosive and represented a real danger to the workers in the plant.
Following the Hopkins study, the workers at the Port Neches plant were told about the explosive potential of butadiene peroxide, and the plants began pumping sodium nitrite into the rubber mix to prevent the formation of popcorn polymers. The remedy worked, and the problem soon became a thing of the past. There was no move to run further tests on butadiene peroxide to see if it had any other harmful properties besides explosiveness. And the men who had been exposed to butadiene peroxide simply continued working at their jobs, just as they always had.
In 1955 the government decided to sell its giant Port Neches rubber plant. In order to avoid handing such a plum to just one company, the government sold one half to a partnership of B. F. Goodrich and Gulf (Gulf sold its interest to Goodrich in 1966) and the other to a partnership of Texaco and U.S. Rubber called Texas-U.S. Chemical. Since these companies were already operating the plant, the change in ownership did not bring with it any change in safety procedures. The Port Neches plants, which by that time were neighbors to several other petrochemical plants, continued to operate as they had in the past.
Carlos Dwight Stokes was born in Andalusia, Alabama, on March 2, 1949, about a year after the completion of the Johns Hopkins study of popcorn polymers. When Carlos was two months old, his father, an insurance salesman, moved the family first to Orange and then to Beaumont, where they lived in a house about a quarter-mile from a large Mobil Oil refinery. After spending about a year in that part of town, the family moved to North Beaumont, several miles from the refineries, and it was there that Carlos entered elementary school. A few years later, Carlos’s father took a job at the Goodrich plant in Port Neches. For a while he commuted to work from Beaumont. Then, in the fall of 1959, the family moved to Port Neches permanently.
The first place they lived was an apartment on Avenue E, just two blocks from the giant Goodrich and Texas-U.S. Chemical plants. After three months they moved to a red-shingled house at 422 Lotton Drive. Although it wasn’t right next to the plants as the apartment had been, the Stokeses’ new home was not far from them. Jefferson Chemical was a mile and a half away; Goodrich and Texas-U.S. Chemical were a mile away; Neches Butane was only half a mile. Here, in a working-class subdivision full of families whose breadwinners worked in the plants, Carlos Dwight Stokes spent the next eleven years of his life.
Like most of the other kids in his neighborhood, Carlos attended the local public schools. From fourth grade to sixth grade he went to Ridgewood Elementary, which was located about a mile and a quarter from the petrochemical plants. Then he went to Port Neches Junior High School, just a half-mile from the plants, and finally to Port Neches-Groves High School, only a few blocks from the plants. None of these schools were air-conditioned at the time Carlos attended them, so their windows were often open to the malodorous winds blowing over from the plants.
After graduating from Port Neches-Groves in the spring of 1968, Carlos enrolled in the College of Technical Arts at Lamar Tech in Beaumont (now Lamar University). The classrooms of Lamar were even closer to the local plants than the buildings of Port Neches-Groves High School had been. Three major plants— Mobil Chemical, PPG Industries, and the Olin Corporation—were adjacent to the campus. Since the early forties, pollution from the petrochemical plants had been a constant presence at the school. First the trees would not grow. Then came instances of coughing and wheezing among the students. In 1964, four years before Carlos Stokes enrolled, the Olin plant accidentally released a cloud of sulfuric acid that actually gave people sunburn and ate up women’s nylon hose. Two years later a heavy concentration of sulfur trioxide wafted across the campus. When combined with moist air, sulfur trioxide forms an acid rain that, as its name implies, descends on buildings, trees, and people. Dr. E. A. Eads, a Lamar University chemist, noticed that the mortar between the bricks of the campus buildings was being eroded and concluded that the cause of the erosion was the pollutants in the air. In 1972, chemical discharges from the plants knocked out the electrical system in Cardinal Stadium and began eating the paint off the bleachers; the university assessed the damage at $225,000. Although there were no such dramatic pollution episodes during Carlos Stokes’s days at Lamar, he attended machinist training classes amid a continual barrage of odor and particulate pollution that appeared to emanate from the neighboring petrochemical plants.
After completing two years of study at Lamar, Carlos left school, married Mary Evelyn Lawson, a young woman he had met working summers at a TG&Y store, and got a job in Beaumont as a machinist with the American-Darling Valve Company. Then he was drafted. He trained at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and Fort Knox, Kentucky, and was sent to Kitzingen, West Germany, as a tank crewman.
It was about this time—late 1970 and early 1971—that Carlos started getting sick. While serving in Kentucky and West Germany, he repeatedly had strep throat, coughs, and high fevers. “Sometimes he would just cough himself down to nothing,” his widow remembers. “When he couldn’t stand it, he would go to a doctor. But Carlos was such a big-built person, over two hundred pounds, he would work even though he was sick.” Though Carlos and his family took his illnesses with the seriousness they seemed to merit at the time, no one, least of all Carlos himself, suspected that his life might be in danger.
When his Army tour expired, Carlos came back to the Golden Triangle and settled into a place on the Twin City Highway in Port Neches—within two miles of at least half a dozen petrochemical plants. Since the plants offered the best-paying jobs in the area, Carlos hoped to work in one himself. But when he went for an interview at Goodrich, he was told he was overweight and could not be hired. He then started a low-calorie diet and went back to work as a machinist at the American-Darling Valve Company in Beaumont, planning to slim down enough to get a job at Goodrich. A short time later his wife became pregnant with their first child.
In the fall of 1972 Carlos Stokes got sick again. It started with a runny nose, backaches, and a cough laced with blood. He went to a doctor in the nearby town of Nederland, who diagnosed his condition as sinusitis and treated him with anti- biotics. The treatment seemed to work, and Carlos felt fine for about two months. Then the runny nose and the bloody cough returned, this time accompanied by a fever of 102 degrees. Carlos went to a doctor in Port Neches, who treated him with more antibiotics. Again, the drugs seemed to work—but only for a few weeks. One day in November 1972, he came home early from work with a nose-bleed. It stopped when he applied a cold compress, but Carlos, who had lost about thirty pounds on his diet, still felt weak. About two weeks after the nosebleed episode he had a fever of 104 degrees accompanied by chills and faintness. The next day he was admitted to Mid-Jefferson County Hospital, where an x-ray revealed a touch of pneumonia in his right lung. A blood test showed that Carlos was anemic.
Unable to make a complete diagnosis of Carlos’s low blood count, the doctors at Mid-Jefferson County Hospital transferred him to Methodist Hospital in Houston for further tests and observation. Two days later the Methodist doctors diagnosed Carlos’s condition as acute myelogenous leukemia. As his physician noted, Carlos was only 23 years old, did not smoke or drink alcohol, and worked in a machine shop where he was “not exposed to any industrial fumes or chemicals.” His family had no history of serious illness.
The doctors put Carlos on a course of chemotherapy, which appeared to be just what he needed. After a two-week stay at Methodist, Carlos started feeling better, and he was released from the hospital with instructions to return for more treatment in two weeks.
The improvement did not last long. Within a week of his release he was back at the hospital complaining of chills, high fever, headaches, pain, and skin infections on his face, arms, and legs. The doctors readmitted him and put him on antibiotics. He stayed in the hospital for fifteen days, responding well to his treatment. By late January he seemed well enough to go home to Port Neches.
When Carlos went back for a checkup in late February 1973 his doctor noted that “he was feeling quite well except that he noticed that his strength was not yet up to par and this is not surprising since he has been so inactive for such a long time.” He added that Carlos appeared to be “in complete remission from his acute leukemic process.”
But Carlos was back in the hospital the following month. This time he was suffering from stomach pains, nausea, and vomiting. Because of his upset stomach, Carlos had decreased his food intake and was subsisting on liquids and cereals. He had lost ten pounds since his release from the hospital three weeks earlier. According to his wife, his weight was down to about 150 pounds, his hair was falling out, and his legs hurt so badly that he could not even stand for the bedsheets to touch them. The Methodist doctors again diagnosed his condition as acute myelogenous leukemia, with the probable added complication of a lower digestive tract obstruction. Carlos stayed in the hospital for another month, showed marked improvement, and again went home to Port Neches.
On June 22, 1973, Mary gave birth to a healthy eight-pound, nine-ounce son that the couple named Jason Dwight Stokes, and soon Carlos himself began to grow healthier. His blood count steadily improved, and the pains and coughs of a few months before ceased. By October he was so much better that his doctor could report that his most recent examination was “completely negative and he appeared to be in excellent health.” It seemed that Carlos might win his battle with leukemia.
Then, in mid-June 1974, just after Mary had become pregnant with their second child, Carlos took sick again and went back to Methodist. He was put on a number of antibiotic programs, but none of them seemed to work. Because of “extreme hypoxia”—that is, oxygen deficiency—he was admitted to the intensive care unit, but his condition got worse. The cancer infiltrated his spleen, his lymph nodes, and his bone marrow. He developed kidney and stomach infections and came down with pneumonia again. Finally, these multiple sicknesses simply overwhelmed him. On the afternoon of July 20, 1974, 25-year-old Carlos Dwight Stokes died.
The official cause of the death of Carlos Stokes was acute myelogenous leukemia. In the late fifties, researchers in the United States, following up on earlier European findings, had begun turning out studies showing apparent links between exposure to benzene and the onset of leukemia—specifically, acute myelogenous leukemia. In 1963 the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare published findings that blood cancer death rates were 54 per cent higher among synthetic rubber workers than among workers in other industries. In 1970 the newly created Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) adopted a “consensus standard” for benzene of 10 ppm with permissible excursions up to 50 ppm. But according to one later government report, occupational health hazards in the rubber industry were still considered “minimal or nonexistent” in the mid-seventies. Besides, in the case of Carlos Stokes, who never worked in a petrochemical plant, there was no history of exposure to industrial chemicals—or so it first appeared.
It took two more years and two more deaths to prompt even a preliminary investigation into the possible link between leukemia and the rubber plants of Port Neches. The deaths occurred in early 1976. This time the people who died had worked in the plants, specifically Goodrich and Texas-U.S. Chemical. What was more, they were members of the Port Neches local of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW), and their deaths attracted the attention of the local union leadership. The union men began talking among themselves and soon discovered that several other members also had leukemia. The OCAW complained to the management at Goodrich and Texas-U.S. The companies, in turn, agreed to call in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to investigate the leukemia deaths.
The NIOSH representatives visited the Port Neches rubber plants in the summer of 1976 and quickly uncovered eight cases of leukemia among past and present employees. Six of the victims had already died of the disease. These cases persuaded NIOSH to commence a full-scale study of 5600 men who had worked at the rubber plants between the mid-forties and the late seventies.
The investigators soon met a ninth leukemia victim who was doing some investigating of his own. His name was Bodie C. Pryor, and he was not a union worker but a former Goodrich technical manager with a chemical engineering degree from Columbia University. In 1965 Pryor had left Goodrich to take a job at the Gulf refinery in Orange. He became the plant’s first environmental engineering and industrial hygiene manager, a position that had been created in response to pressure from the government and environmental groups. Though he generally told plant employees just what his superiors had told him about the hazards —or lack of hazards—in the plant, Pryor took his new job seriously and began reading up on the chemicals used in petrochemical plants.
“I became more and more aware of what the companies had been hiding all those years,” Pryor recalled later. “The more I read, the more I realized that diseases in the plants were coming from the workplace and the environment and that the management of the plants was handing out a bunch of baloney in saying that the chemicals did not hurt you.”
In 1973 Pryor learned that he had cancer of the kidney. Three years later he discovered that he also had leukemia. He did not reveal the leukemia to anyone outside his immediate family and was especially careful not to discuss it with the other men at the plant. He did not want them to pity him or try to do extra work to help him out. More than that, he did not want to appear to be a complainer.
“It’s a subtle pressure you’re working under at a plant,” he explained years later. “I would probably have been fired, downgraded, or stalemated if I’d filed a lawsuit before retirement. The company denies it, but it’s understood by everyone who works there even though it isn’t written down. Things like that are all hushed up.”
In the meantime, Pryor started thinking about the possible causes of his cancers and remembered the 1948 Johns Hopkins study on popcorn polymers from his early days at the Goodrich rubber plant. He tracked down one of the doctors involved in the study and got a copy of the report, which had noted the presence of butadiene peroxide in the plant. Pryor then consulted some standard toxicology books and found a 1967 edition of Industrial Hygiene and Toxicology that listed butadiene peroxide as a chemical known to cause leukemia. This discovery seemed to Pryor to confirm what he already suspected—that the chemicals he had worked around were the cause of his illness.
When Pryor heard that the NIOSH team was going to study the Port Neches rubber plants, he secretly contacted the investigators and offered to cooperate on a confidential basis. His cooperation did not remain confidential for long. In 1978 NIOSH mentioned to Goodrich that besides the eight plant-worker leukemia victims it had found another man with leukemia who was a former “process engineer and technical manager” who had gone on to another job in 1965. It did not take long for the management at Goodrich to realize that that person was Bodie Pryor.
In 1978, at the age of 64, Pryor retired from his job with Gulf. A few months later he filed a seven-figure lawsuit against Goodrich, Gulf, and most of the other major petrochemical companies operating in the Golden Triangle. His suit charged that the plants’ pollution had caused his leukemia.
Pryor says his suit led the management at Goodrich to hold up his pension. Month after month, he says, he inquired as to the whereabouts of his pension checks and got no response. Finally, after nearly two years had passed, he called Goodrich plant manager Donald Boumans and threatened to take his case to the news media. Boumans, Pryor says, begged him to hold off a little longer until he had time to look into the complaint. A few more days passed, and Pryor contacted a Beaumont reporter just as he had threatened. The next day he got an envelope by express mail that contained a check for twenty months’ back pension. Goodrich won’t comment on the matter.
Within a few days of his filing suit, Pryor’s telephone began ringing with calls gp from other Golden Triangle people who had leukemia or other forms of cancer or knew of people who did. Soon Pryor began his own amateur epidemiological investigation, compiling names and addresses and short case histories of cancer victims in the area.
One of those who heard of Pryor and his lawsuit against the petrochemical companies was Mary Evelyn Stokes Johnson, the widow of Carlos Dwight Stokes. Carlos’s death had left his wife with one small child, one unborn child, and not much means of support. She decided to follow Bodie Pryor’s lead. In the fall of 1978 she filed a $3.5 million suit against Goodrich, Neches Butane, Texas-U.S. Chemical, and 26 other companies with petrochemical plants in the Golden Triangle, alleging that the pollution emitted by the plants had caused Carlos Stokes’s leukemia and his death. Goodrich will not comment on anything relating to the Stokes and Pryor suits, which are still pending.
Besides lodging their complaints against the same companies, Bodie Pryor and Mary Stokes Johnson (after Carlos’s death she married his best friend, Tommy Johnson, but the marriage later ended in divorce and she has now remarried once more) had something else in common: their lawyer. His name was William Townsley, and he was a Beaumont plaintiffs attorney and an active environmentalist. Townsley formed a working association with the Houston firm of Kronzer, Abraham, and Watkins (the former law firm of former attorney general John Hill), with an eye to using both the Pryor case and the Stokes case to open up a whole new area of community cancer lawsuits and at the same time force the petrochemical companies to clean up their plants. As Townsley saw it, the only way to get the companies to act responsibly was to make them “pick up the tab for their damages.” If they do, of course, Townsley himself will become a wealthy man.
The investigations and lawsuits involving the Port Neches cancer cases apparently prompted the local petrochemical companies to institute some new safety and health measures. Shortly after the NIOSH team arrived on the scene, the rubber plants began monitoring their workers for benzene exposure. Goodrich also stopped using PBNA and replaced it with another antioxidant. According to Pryor, the decision to stop using PBNA came after a 1976 Wall Street Journal article reported findings of’ high cancer rates among rocket fuel workers exposed to PBNA. Pryor says Goodrich did not tell its workers why PBNA was being discontinued.
About the time the leukemia cases came to light, NIOSH came out with a stronger stand against benzene. The institute recommended that OSHA reduce the benzene standard from 10 ppm to 1 ppm, adding that it could not determine that there was in fact any safe level of exposure to benzene. In 1977 OSHA issued non-binding guidelines calling for a benzene standard of 1 ppm. That same year the Environmental Protection Agency listed benzene as a hazardous air pollutant under section 112 of the Clean Air Act. The National Association of Petroleum Refiners and other industry groups im- mediately attacked the more stringent benzene guidelines as unfair, claiming that the new standard would cost industry up to $500 million to implement. The two sides eventually went to court over the standard, and in the summer of 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the industry, saying that the government was empowered only to guarantee a “safe” workplace, not a “risk-free” one.
Meanwhile, the subject of cancer and petrochemical plants was becoming a hot topic in the scientific community. Along with the NIOSH investigation of the Port Neches rubber plants came announcements of separate studies of cancer risks at other petrochemical plants along the Texas Gulf Coast. The National Cancer Institute undertook a study of cancer among petrochemical workers at three Texas refineries. The University of Texas School of Public Health began studies of both occupationally related cancers and cancer rates in communities surrounding petrochemical plants on the Texas Gulf Coast. And several of the major petrochemical companies began studies of the possible links between cancer and petrochemical plants.
William Townsley started his own informal health investigation of leukemia among Port Neches-Groves High School graduates. He quickly learned of three other leukemia deaths besides that of Carlos Stokes. All three cases involved males who had graduated from Port Neches-Groves High School between 1964 and 1974. In addition, Townsley learned of four cases of Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymph nodes, among male Port Neches-Groves graduates. According to available epidemiological data, the expected incidence of leukemia death in a population the size of the male student body attending Port Neches-Groves High School during the sixties and early seventies was less than one.
Believing that, at the very least, his findings called for further inquiries by competent medical authorities, Townsley wrote the Texas Department of Health informing it of the four graduates’ deaths and asking the department to launch its own investigation of the situation. He also contacted the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta but learned that the CDC was unable to act on his information without first being invited to Port Neches by the Department of Health. For reasons that the two bureaucracies now dispute, the CDC and the Department of Health could not find a way to work together. Although its primary job is controlling communicable diseases like the flu and it is limited in staff and resources, the Department of Health decided to handle the situation on its own.
In the spring of 1979 the department began an inquiry into the incidence of leukemia among former Port Neches-Groves High School students. But instead of studying male former students or the entire former student population of the sixties and seventies, the Department of Health confined the study to leukemia deaths (rather than all leukemia incidents) among female former students. Dr. Richard Donelson, the study’s director, says the decision to study females was made with the full knowledge that the incidence of leukemia among males is more than a third higher than the incidence among females. He says the Department of Health investigators felt that by studying females they would be better able to study the problem of community cancer rates, since there was less chance that females would have been exposed to cancer-causing chemicals through summer or part-time jobs in the plants.
The Texas Department of Health released its final report on the Port Neches-Groves High School study in the summer of 1980. After stating that it had not found even one female former student who had died of leukemia, the study concluded that “acknowledging the expressed limitations of the data produced, there is no reason to believe, based on this study that PNGHS students have been at greater risk of developing leukemia than graduates of the average Texas high school.” Donelson told the press that Port Neches students and their families could find “comfort” in the study’s findings. Dr. Jerome Greenberg, a deputy commissioner of the Department of Health, added that there was “no indication for a need for further study in the school.” In short, the Department of Health left the very distinct impression that the whole issue of community cancer in the area was a tempest in a teapot and that the citizens and students of Port Neches had nothing to worry about.
The Department of Health appears to have been over-optimistic. Bodie Pryor recently generated a list of more US han 25 people associated with Port Neches-Groves High School who have been diagnosed in the past ten years as having some form of cancer; the list, admittedly unscientific, includes students, staff, and faculty members who had never worked in the plants. Although the Department of Health plans no follow-up study of the school, Donelson now calls the department’s report “kind of a pilot study.” He acknowledges that “in retrospect” he was “a little overconservative” in his design of the study and that “it would have been feasible to study both males and females.” And while he maintains that he would feel safe in sending his own son to Port Neches-Groves High School if he lived in the community, he admits he would be “hesitant about having him work in the plants.”
In recent months, separate studies by the National Cancer Institute and NIOSH have reported increased rates of cancer among petrochemical workers at the Dow Chemical plant in Freeport, the Union Carbide plant in Texas City, the Texaco plant and the Gulf refinery in Port Arthur, and the Mobil refinery in Beaumont. Among other findings, these studies have shown incidences of brain cancer death as much as five times the expected rate for the general population and of lung cancer death as high as twice the normal rate, as well as higher incidences of stomach, kidney, and blood cancer.
Preliminary results from the NIOSH study of the Port Neches rubber plants begun in 1976 report three times the expected number of leukemia deaths among people employed at the Goodrich plant between 1943 and 1976. Although NIOSH found the expected number of deaths at the Texas-U.S. Chemical plant next door, the study noted that there were no data available on workers employed there before 1950. Because of the small size of the population under study, NIOSH reported that “the excesses of cancer were not statistically significant” but also noted that the basic findings—that there were excess deaths—were “consistent with other researches in the field.” OSHA now classifies “styrene and butadiene and other rubber manufacture” in the category of suspected carcinogens.
But while these government and union-associated studies have been finding increased cancer risk in the plants, company-sponsored studies have been reporting no increased risk. So although certain data, as well as smell and intuition, suggest that petrochemical plants do pose health risks for their workers, the matter is not yet settled among scientists.
Working conditions in plants in Port Neches and elsewhere on the Texas Gulf Coast have changed considerably in the wake of the environmentalist pressures of the seventies. Most chemicals, and especially known or suspected carcinogens, are processed in closed systems that prevent them from coming in contact with the workers or with the atmosphere. There is an evident concern with safety and health monitoring that did not exist in the early days. And the companies, including Goodrich, have cooperated with various government cancer studies by providing personnel data.
At the same time, there is no evidence that the petrochemical companies have been leading an aggressive campaign to police themselves. Goodrich did come forward in 1974 with reports about rare liver cancers that some of its vinyl chloride workers in Ohio developed, but its approach to styrene, which has some chemical similarities to vinyl chloride, has been to give styrene’s possible links to cancer the benefit of the doubt at every turn. For example, during depositions in the Stokes case. Dr. M. N. Johnson, Goodrich environmental health projects administrator, admitted that he had not consulted either Toxline or Medline, the two basic medical information services, for the available literature on styrene. Johnson also said he had not conducted any independent tests on styrene.
There is not likely to be much government pressure on the industry in the near future. The Reagan Administration has made it clear that it intends to roll back the aggressive environmental efforts of the federal government, and the Texas Air Control Board is not authorized to test chemicals in use in the petrochemical plants. Although the board can refer complaints to the state attorney general’s office for prosecution, it usually favors what it calls voluntary compliance.
So the question of community cancer is not likely to be resolved soon—not least because most people in job-rich Port Neches and other petrochemical industry towns don’t have it at the top of their list of priorities. Dr. Thomas Huff, the Port Neches school superintendent, pledges to cooperate with any legitimate health studies, just as his predecessor cooperated with the Department of Health. But he carefully avoids saying whether or not there is an increased risk of cancer in attending Port Neches-Groves High School; his position is that he does not have the scientific expertise to interpret the results of recent studies. He goes on to say that the local plants are “not a nuisance” and that he personally is “not aware of any harmful effects” from working in them. His general impression of the Stokes case and Townsley’s efforts to spur a medical inquiry was, he says, that “the lawyer was trying to get the Health Department to try his case for him.”
Port Neches’s mayor, Gary Graham, is also reluctant to question the local petrochemical industry. A management employee at one of the plants (he asked that the name of his employer not be mentioned), Graham lost a seven-year-old daughter to leukemia. “I wish to God it had been me rather than her,” he says. “But I can’t fault the people who fed me all my life. My daddy worked for an oil company, and I’ve worked in the industry for thirty-one years.” He says he doubts that the pollution from the plants was to blame for his daughter’s illness. “The sad part in this whole thing,” he says, referring to the four Port Neches-Groves High School graduates who died of leukemia, “is that you’re talking four people, in this is instance, when thousands of people are dying from cigarette smoking in this country every year. Drunk drivers kill fifty at thousand people every year. Where are our priorities? Where is our perspective? We’re gagging a gnat and keeping a whole it log in our eye.”
When the Stokes suit was filed back in ie 1978 many students at Port Neches-Groves High School apparently took the matter as something of a joke, and several ran up and down the halls teasing each other by saying, “Don’t touch me or you’ll get cancer.” Even some of the parents of children who have suffered or died from various forms of cancer are, like Mayor Graham, reluctant to blame their children’s illnesses on the plants. As one mother put it, “Those plants are my bread and butter. If we were to pick up and leave tomorrow, someone else would come in and take our jobs.”
The former Mary Stokes now lives in a new one-story brick home in a Port Arthur subdivision. The Port Neches city limita are only a few blocks away, and the towers of the petrochemical plants are visible on all horizons. Visitors to the house are greeted by a cheerful blonde, blue-eyed little girl, six years old.
The little girl’s name is Angela Denise Stokes, and she is the child with whom Mary Stokes was pregnant when Carlos died of leukemia. Mary is now married to a man named Reeves. She too is blonde and blue-eyed, with a round face and a pleasant disposition. The Reeveses want to move one day to a chicken ranch in East Texas. But for now Mary’s husband, like most of the men in the area, works in one of the local plants. He has also been married before, but his first wife died of breast cancer. “‘Cancer’ is a word we listen to in this family,” Mary Stokes Reeves says softly, as she pours coffee at the kitchen table.
Early this spring Mary learned of still another cancer case close to home. The victim is a young man only 21 years old. He lives in Port Neches, one street over from where Carlos Dwight Stokes used to live, just a short distance from the plants. He is a graduate of Port Neches-Groves High School. Recently he was diagnosed as having a lymphoma. Mary knows the young man well. She used to baby-sit for him when he was growing up. No one knows whether the young man’s illness was caused by living near the local petrochemical plants, but it is clear that Mary believes it was. Mention of his illness brings tears to her eyes.
“I hate to watch it,” she says. “It’s like it’s happening all over again.”
VELSICOL 1, GOVERNMENT 0
The environmental bureaucrats went mano a mano with one company on the Texas Gulf Coast and got outlasted and out-toughed. Between 1972 and 1975 eleven workers at a pesticide plant on the Houston Ship Channel run by a company called Velsicol suffered severe neurological damage in what was probably the most dramatic case of work-related disease in the industrial southeast corner of Texas. The plant made a poison called Phosvel, which kills insects by disrupting the electrical currents that run through their nerves and, it turned out, has a similar effect on animals and people. Besides the 11 men who were severely hurt, 63 other Velsicol employees who had been exposed to Phosvel were found to have experienced physical problems after working at the plant—stiffness, sweating, aches, and, in some cases, impotence.
In Egypt, the prime market for Phosvel (it has never been legal in the United States), the pesticide began paralyzing water buffalo as well as killing insects. In this country Velsicol also manufactured DBCP, a pesticide that caused infertility among workers at the Velsicol plant in Arkansas that produced it, and two other pesticides, heptachlor and chlordane, that caused cancer in laboratory animals.
All these activities had the cumulative effect of getting the environmental bureaucracy and the press (see “Danger: Men Working,” TM, May 1978) hot onto Velsicol’s trail. In 1977 the U.S. Department of Justice succeeded in obtaining from a Chicago grand jury criminal indictments (unheard-of in environmental cases) against six Veisicol executives, who faced prison terms of up to fifty years if convicted. The press then forgot about the case, assuming that Velsicol would pay for past sins and refrain from future ones.
That’s not exactly what happened. In January 1981 the criminal cases against Velsicol finally came to an end, and by anyone’s measure Velsicol won a spectacular victory. The company hired the law firm of Edward Bennett Williams, the legendarily aggressive Washington criminal defense lawyer, and the Williams firm pounced like a tiger on an obscure government lawyer named Bingham Kennedy. As an EPA employee, Kennedy had helped build the case against Velsicol; then he moved to the Justice Department and helped prosecute it. So during the grand jury hearings, Kennedy first testified against Velsicol, wearing his EPA hat, and then questioned witnesses, wearing his Justice Department hat. Velsicol filed a motion for dismissal of the case on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct by Kennedy, and the judge in Chicago accepted the motion and wrote a blistering opinion throwing out the criminal indictments. The government reindicted, then settled for a plea-bargained civil contempt citation against the company and its employees. In the end Velsicol and the indicted executives paid a grand total of $5000 in civil fines.
The Justice Department originally planned to investigate Velsicol’s Texas operations, but then agreed not to as part of the complex deal arrived at in the Chicago criminal case. Several of ihe workers hurt at the Texas plant in the early seventies sued Velsicol; mostlv because of the way workmen’s compensation laws are written in Texas, none of the cases are likely even to get to court. Velsicol’s Texas plant stopped making Phosvel in 1976 and concentrated on making another pesticide called EPN, which is more toxic than Phosvel but, plant managers say, safer to work with because it is a liquid and therefore more easily containable than Phosvel, which is a powder.
In 1979 a chemical leak at the Texas plant caused an explosion and fire, but no one was killed. In February of this year the plant completed two full years without an accident, and the company marked the occasion by putting up a plaque and throwing a lunch for its employees. Veisicol has a new president who says the company’s first priority is “to make its plants and its products environmentally safe and secure.”
The moral of the story is that health and safety protection in Texas industry is particularly difficult because the companies have far more staying power than the watchdogs in and out of government. The companies see things through and play tough; the watchdogs, more often than not, quickly turn their attention elsewhere, and so fritter away their few victories. Velsicol says its Texas plant is now a completely safe place to work, and there’s nothing to do but take their word for it.