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Secret files reveal Boeing doctor warned of toxic risks, birth defects
The Daily Herald - 11/13/2022
Editor's note: This is part of ongoing coverage examining the dangers of chemical exposure to Boeing workers in the Puget Sound region, including the Everett plant. According to records obtained exclusively by The Daily Herald, the aerospace company knew
for decades — since at least 1980 — that toxins used in its factories posed risks not just to employees, but to their unborn children, too.
EVERETT — On March 18, 1980, one of Boeing's top doctors made "a rather disastrous attempt" to alert company leadership to a problem that could be fatal.
"During the 'routine and usual' course of their employment," tens of thousands of Boeing workers in the Puget Sound region were being exposed to "probably hazardous" and "certainly uncontrolled" amounts of toxic chemical mixtures, Dr. Barry Dunphy warned in a presentation to the company's president.
Dunphy scrawled in handwritten slides, using a series of ellipses and line breaks:
"….. was not known to be true in previous decades.
"….. is presently occurring without anyone's real knowledge or consent.
"….. may result in future 'outbreaks' of serious illness — including sterility, fetal abnormalities, stillbirth, life-long chronic illness, cancer and death."
As Boeing's occupational health manager, Dunphy recommended protecting employees with uniform chemical labeling, medical monitoring, special training and other measures. This could be done, he advised, by building a stronger "industrial hygiene" program within Boeing's medical department.
His pitch failed.
The doctor later noted, in a tone of defeat, that Boeing President Malcolm Stamper "did not appear at all sympathetic or indeed faintly happy" about having "this organizational problem brought to his attention." Dunphy's notes and slides are among scores of internal company documents, now the subject of depositions, in a series of lawsuits that claim his fears came true.
Three families allege Boeing failed to protect its employees from industrial poisons when parents worked in its factories, leading to the birth defects in their children.
For Marie Riley, now 42, a lifelong heart condition.
For Tianna Hatleberg, now 28, a neurological disorder resulting from a missing part of the brain.
For Natalie Ford, now 8, a debilitating genetic disorder.
The cases span 40 years, involving two fathers employed at the Boeing Everett plant and one mother employed at a Seattle-area factory that has since been shuttered.
Revelations in the cases offer a window into forewarnings that echoed for decades at the highest echelons of one of the world's largest aerospace companies — and chemical dangers still present at the Everett plant today.
'The storm that lies ahead'
Dunphy's warning is one of the earliest internal documents showing some company experts have long suspected the toxins used on its manufacturing floors pose risks not just to workers, but their unborn children, too.
Late last month, the company and Riley reached an out-of-court settlement, according to a joint motion filed in King County Superior Court on Nov. 7. The amount was not disclosed. According to the motion, settlement discussions are still ongoing in the other two lawsuits, filed in 2018.
Boeing, represented by Seattle-based law firm Perkins Coie, has denied that the plaintiffs' birth defects were caused by chemical exposure and maintains that it has taken adequate steps to protect its employees, according to court filings.
Boeing spokesperson Jessica Kowal said the company does not comment on pending litigation as a matter of policy.
In depositions and court filings, the company has maintained there's mixed scientific evidence on the connection, and that it's dependent on the chemical, the manner of exposure and the dose.
The company and the plaintiffs exchanged hundreds of thousands of pages of documents in the discovery phase, alongside more than 30 depositions, according to the notice filed Monday in King County Superior Court.
The Herald obtained transcripts from eight depositions of former and current Boeing employees, including more than a hundred exhibits of internal memos, scientific literature and other company documents.
The plaintiff's lead attorneys, who specialize in birth defect litigation, attribute the children's "catastrophic" injuries to a "perfect storm" of toxins from two chemical classes.
Some are heavy metals: cadmium, lead and chromium.
Others are organic solvents, such as toluene, xylene, petroleum distillates, methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), methyl propyl keytone (MPK), and trichloroethylene (TCE).
Some chemicals identified in the lawsuits are still used at the Everett plant. One of them is hexavalent chromium, also called Chromium VI, a long-established poison that Boeing's own scientists have labeled as the No. 1 chemical of concern, according to the depositions. It's the same chemical to blame for the groundwater contamination in Hinkley, California, as dramatized in the film "Erin Brockovich."
Given the range of factors that can cause reproductive issues, it is difficult to determine whether a child's birth defect is due to the mother or father being exposed to chemicals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it's even harder to pinpoint a specific industrial chemical, given that many of them haven't been studied for reproductive effects, and industrial workers are usually exposed to a mixture.
Some chemicals in use at Boeing's plants have been labeled as "reproductive hazards" — sometimes signified by an icon with the gender symbols that can also represent Mars and Venus. But the plaintiffs' attorneys argue the disclaimer is obscured in the fine print, and the company never adequately explained that term to its workers.
The three plaintiffs' families had never considered chemical exposure could be a cause of their children's conditions — until 2016, when the law firm Waters Kraus & Paul ran a radio ad in the Seattle area, seeking workers in the electronics and aerospace industries who had children with birth defects.
"I strongly suspect that there are many other children of Boeing employees who have lived their lives with birth defects," said lead plaintiff's attorney Michael Connett, "without knowing that their conditions were caused by the chemicals that their parents were working with at Boeing."
"It's really not a question of if," said Connett, a partner at Waters Kraus & Paul, in an August interview. "It's a question of how many."
The plaintiffs have undergone genetic testing and consulted geneticists to interpret the meaning of the tests, Connett said. Other expert witnesses for the plaintiffs include medical doctors, neuropsychologists and an industrial hygienist, a type of specialist that analyzes workplace hazards.
Workers are still at risk, Connett contended, because of Boeing's failures to communicate the hazards and adequately enforce safety rules. And while working-class mechanics might be willing to roll the dice on their own health, Connett said, the stakes would seem higher if they knew "it's not just risks to yourselves, it's risks to your children."
In his pitch to Stamper over 40 years ago, Dunphy estimated 30,000 employees were "potentially exposed" to "toxic chemical mixtures" and marked about 5 percent of them, or 1,500 people a year, as the "fraction seriously damaged."
"The bottom line….," Dunphy typed in an outline of the 1980 presentation, punctuated with irregular ellipses in the text: "Before long we're going to get screwed because we've got an impotent occupational health program …. blind 'seat of the pants fling (sic) isn't going to get us through the storm that lies ahead … we need the 'radar' of an effective Industrial Hygiene program."
The other alternatives weren't good, Dunphy wrote. Among them:
"a) Continue to ignore the problem … 'hope for the best.'"
"b) 'play dumb' ….eliminate hygiene (& Medicine) completely….destroy existing command media dealing with the subject…"
He presented his recommendation to Stamper alongside another doctor, Boeing's medical director and the general manager of the company's Seattle services division Art Carter, according to the notes.
"I suspect that this effort will be abandoned indefinitely," Dunphy wrote afterwards, "…probably permanently….although GM still seems to believe that the concept is a good one…"
"I'll believe it when I see it."
When Marie Riley was in the womb, her mother Deborah Ulrich worked at Boeing's Electronics Manufacturing Facility, which once stood on the east side of Boeing Field, also known as King County International Airport.
In the 1980s, it was discovered that groundwater beneath the site was tainted with TCE and other toxic compounds. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is overseeing the cleanup.
The plume of contamination extends about a half-mile from where the facility, known as the EMF, was located, under another Boeing plant cleanup site and into the Lower Duwamish Waterway, a federal Superfund site.
Long before the EMF's demolition in the 1990s, it was a grimy workplace, Connett said.
Fumes drifted from the manufacturing area, where tank lines pumped chemical baths. A degreasing machine heated chemical solvents, giving rise to hot vapors that would clean circuit boards. Chromic acid, a type of hexavalent chromium, was used as an etching agent to carve out circuit boards, he said.
Ulrich was a "floater" who did many tasks. She used the degreaser, cooked light-sensitive film onto copper panels, touched up the patterns on circuit panels with a pen that applied black ink. She cleaned soldered boards by dipping them in industrial solvents, Connett said.
In 1979, about a year before Ulrich became pregnant, Dunphy warned company leadership that Boeing had "no formal training programs in safety and health aspects of hazardous materials, except in radiation health protection."
In a memo to corporate leadership, he also said that "uncontrolled exposures of employees to hazardous materials is occurring" and "required medical surveillance and examinations are not being conducted."
The following year, in his failed presentation to Stamper, the doctor warned that "occupational illness among employees is increasingly apparent" and "deviation from legal requirements is increasing."
Dunphy writes in verbose jargon, but the urgency is apparent.
"What were formerly considered to be 'insignificantly small concentrations' of physical and chemical agents in the environment," he wrote in the presentation, "are now believed to interact over relatively long periods of time with a variable number of poorly defined 'intrinsic factors' to adversely effect the reproductive process, and to accentuate chronic (so called 'degenerative') disease processes such as cancer."
"The well documented effects of asbestos, benzene, aniline dyes, and vinyl chloride are current examples," Dunphy wrote. "Most chromium and nickel compounds, lead, virtually all of our chlorinated organic solvents, and most of our resin systems are under strong indictment by the National Cancer Institute at the present time."
Michael Krause, who worked for Boeing from 1978 to 1980 as an industrial hygienist, acknowledged "there were issues" with employee chemical exposure. But in a January deposition, he questioned Dunphy's dire portrayal.
"I think I would just take issue with the implication that — that everything was crazy and uncontrolled and people are sloshing around in chemicals all over the company," Krause testified. "That wasn't true."
Boeing's occupational health and safety program began to take shape in the decade after Congress passed the landmark Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Company policy created in 1974 required "programs, standards, regulations, and practices for the mutual benefit of employees and the corporation as regards health, safety and accident prevention."
The following year, the company developed standard cautionary labels for hazardous chemicals, in line with guidance from the newly created National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, according to a court filing by the company.
Warnings included information — "to the extent known at the time" — about whether a chemical caused cancer, genetic mutations, birth defects or other health issues, the company said in the court filing.
Those warnings appeared on federally required safety data sheets for each chemical, available to employees in binders placed throughout the EMF and other factories, the filing says. Boeing also maintains there were safety notices posted around the plant, and workers received "on-the-job" training about chemical hazards.
Those programs have improved over the years, Krause testified, as science on chemical hazards advanced and the company developed a formal "hazard communication" program.
"It's obvious that new information came out about a lot of different kinds of chemicals over the years, and permissible limits were lowered," Krause said. "… There was new scientific knowledge all the time, and we tried to react to that."
In August, when Boeing Senior Toxicologist Brittany Weldon was deposed to speak on the company's behalf, she acknowledged Boeing's medical professionals "were of the opinion by 1980 that some chemicals in Boeing's workplace could potentially cause stillbirths, fetal abnormalities, and infertility, through some exposure routes at certain concentrations or doses for some chemicals in some people."
As she explained, the impact of a given chemical depends on whether it's inhaled, ingested or absorbed through skin contact. The body's process for taking in and metabolizing that chemical varies accordingly.
As early as the 1970s, Boeing had books in its toxicology library that said some organic solvents "were implicated" as causes of birth defects, according to Weldon's deposition.
The literature references various chemical risks to both a fetus in the womb and to men who can pass harm onto their offspring through what's known as "male-mediated developmental toxicity."
"It is likely that solvents affect male fertility and semen quality," says one of the toxicology library's books, entitled "Reproductive Health Hazards in the Workplace," originally published in 1985.
In her deposition, Weldon noted that organic solvents "are a very broad class of chemicals."
"Not all organic solvents can cause reproductive or developmental toxicity, and I can't say for certain exactly when Boeing became aware that some solvents can have those effects," she testified.
"I would add the caveat that they haven't been specifically linked at Boeing," she testified. "They have been specifically linked in the scientific literature in animals and animal studies, and that there is mixed evidence."
Boeing's attorneys have cited a 1979 memo from a pregnant graphic artist as evidence that the company historically "accommodated requests by employees to be placed on a medical restriction and to be transferred to a different workspace area during pregnancy."
In the memo written by the Seattle-area employee, she reported she experienced headaches, respiratory irritation and eye irritation while spending hours a day in a poorly ventilated room near a printer that was a source of TCE fumes.
When the employee questioned Dr. Dunphy about the risk, he "stated that there was no 100% sure way of protecting ourselves from the Trichloroethylene fumes," she relayed in the memo, addressed to management. So he put her on "medical restriction" and moved her away from the source of the fumes, according to her memo.
"I was particularly interested," the employee wrote, "in obtaining protection for those artists, myself included, who were planning a family in the near future."
'Chemicals of concern'
For decades, Boeing has maintained a list of "chemicals of concern" for "reproductive toxicity," the depositions show. This inventory lists industrial chemicals linked to birth defects via human studies, animal studies or both.
The evolving list is one of many pieces of evidence, discussed in the depositions, that illustrate the company has been tracking and analyzing such risks for years.
In 1986, a company epidemiologist compiled a list of chemicals "reportedly associated with adverse reproductive effects in occupationally exposed men or women." Among them were cadmium, lead, benzene, toluene, xylene and other solvents.
As of 1993, the list contained information about specific effects of such chemicals, and the extent to which scientific literature confirmed the link.
Cadmium and cadmium compounds, for example, made the 1993 list as hazardous to both the male and female reproductive systems, based on sufficient data from animal studies and limited data from human studies. "Growth retardation, birth defects, functional deficits, infertility and breast milk contamination" were identified as "specific effects" of cadmium.
Various iterations of the Boeing physicians' guide also reference the reproductive risks of organic solvents and other chemicals. One historical excerpt identifies organic solvents, as a group, as neurotoxins.
"Solvents readily cross the placental barrier, and are suspected of causing adverse reproductive effects which include cleft palate, spontaneous abortion, neonatal sepsis and childhood cancer," says an excerpt from the "Occupational Health Exam Guide."
The document is dated 1988.
That was the year that one plaintiff's father, Shawn Hatleberg, began working as a mechanic for Boeing's Everett plant.
When filling out a health survey for his placement at the company, Hatleberg checked "yes" next to a question asking whether he was "capable of producing children."
Another question asked "Are you pregnant at the present time?" (He marked "N/A.")
There's a note on the form, in small print: "Scientists generally believe that reproductive cells and the developing embryo and fetus are more sensitive than most normal adults to certain workplace chemicals and several forms of radiation."
Hatleberg helped assemble 747s as a "final body join" mechanic at the Everett plant, Connett said.
As the jets neared the end of production, dozens of people would work to finish the plane at the same time, using a variety of chemical products, Connett said. Some of these mechanics worked inside the aircraft, confined in small spaces with chemical fumes.
The depositions highlight a disconnect between what's written in handbooks and manuals and what actually happens on the bustling shop floors, where there are hundreds of chemicals in use.
"One of the things that we have learned through the course of discovery is that the first and second line managers at the Everett plant often don't enforce the safety rules that are in effect," Connett said. "And as a result, you have a disconnect often between the safety policies as written and the actual workplace practices that are in effect."
"Unfortunately," he added, "what we have found is that too often at Boeing, it's production that they prioritize, not safety of their workers."
Among the products Hatleberg handled was a primer called BMS 10-11, containing high levels of hexavalent chromium and toxic solvents, Connett said.
For years at Boeing, standard practice was to apply the widely used primer with aerosolizing devices called a pre-val, according to the depositions. Around 1990, this practice was "basically banned" because employees had little control over how much of the chemical spewed from the pre-vals, Krause testified.
Before the ban, mechanics would spray the chemical — some without respirators and sometimes in close proximity of one another — emitting a "green mist in the air laden with hexavalent chromium, toluene and other industrial poisons," Connett said. The substance also routinely got on Hatleberg's skin when he was painting it onto surfaces using a brush, according to the attorney.
Not knowing that some hardware was plated with cadmium, some Boeing mechanics placed fasteners in their mouths to free up their hands for the drilling, Connett said.
Dana Ford, father of plaintiff Natalie Ford, worked in the final assembly process when his daughter was conceived in 2013. On the interiors of 777 freighters, he often used some of the same chemicals as Hatleberg.
Two of the chemicals Ford worked with, MPK and corrosion-inhibiting compounds, remain common at Boeing's factories, even though employees have long-complained about headaches and respiratory issues because of the fumes, according to the depositions.
Included in the depositions are a sampling of audits of Boeing's Everett plant, from as early as 1989 to as recent as 2019, citing safety violations related to protective gear, employee training and airborne chemical levels.
In 1989, OSHA found levels of chromates and other chemicals in excess of regulatory limits at Boeing Advanced Systems' Everett Site, according to an audit. Workers weren't wearing required respirators, gloves and other protective gear, says an internal memo about the audit. Chemicals weren't properly labeled.
"Employees were not provided with information and training on hazardous chemicals in their work area at the time of their initial assignment or on a continual basis in relation to the completion of the assigned job task," says the memo.
State and federal regulators assessed over $170,000 in fines.
About the same time, Krause testified, Boeing made a big push to recruit more medical, toxicology, health and safety specialists. In the 1980s, he started his own business as a consultant. He got a call from Boeing.
At the time, the company was in the process of building its chemical inventory. As part of Boeing's "hazard communication" program, reams of chemical safety data sheets were distilled into more practical "HazCom info sheets," which outlined a worker's risk while performing a given job duty or process.
In the 1990s, Krause traveled to shops around Puget Sound, giving two-hour training courses tailored to each one based on workers' job functions.
"That was the whole idea — and it was kind of brilliant, really — not just throw a bunch of safety data sheets out there, but actually look at what they're doing, how they're using chemicals, monitor it so you know what the exposures are," Krause testified in his deposition, "and then for their shops and their operations, boil it down to a few HazCom info sheets that you'd go over with them."
Over the years, Boeing has taken steps to reduce worker exposure to some toxic chemicals. It invested in better technology and facility upgrades, while phasing out certain products and practices. Information once kept in binders and handbooks in shop rooms was moved online.
The company instituted monitoring programs to ensure worker exposure levels were below regulatory maximums.
Still, the depositions raise questions about whether training workshops and warnings in the fine print have been enough to convey the true dangers of toxic chemicals to thousands of workers.
In 2021, Boeing toxicologists reviewed health hazards for more than 100 chemical information sheets, according to notes from a meeting of company industrial hygienists.
It was then — decades after scientific literature documented a link between birth defects and organic solvents — that the company added a line to that database entry.
"May be toxic to reproduction."