Toxic Smoke and Mirrors

Overexposure to manganese has caused Parkinson’s-like symptoms for thousands of welders. So why does the welding industry still get a free chemical pass? A <i>Mother Jones</i> investigation.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license by flickr user <a href="">Library of Congress</a>

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The shaking in Jeffrey Tamraz’s right hand began in 2001. It was intermittent, so he paid it little mind. A six-foot, 260-pound bear of a man, he’d played football and thrown shot and discus in high school; later he got into competitive weightlifting, and worked up to bench-pressing 465 pounds—once, to win a bet, he flipped a Honda Civic on its side. He brought the same passion to his work. “I taught welding for six years,” he says. “I read books on welding. I loved to weld.”

But by 2004, the twitching had grown too persistent to ignore, and the 47-year-old felt sluggish and clumsy. He consulted a neurologist and was stunned to get the diagnosis: parkinsonism. Upon learning that his patient had been welding for 25 years, and knowing that welding fumes contain manganese, a toxic metal, the specialist suggested the symptoms were work related.

Since then, Tamraz has lost not only his livelihood, but much of his easygoing personality. Gone, says Terry, his wife of 10 years, is her husband’s sense of humor and his penchant for impromptu dances in malls and grocery stores. Driving is difficult, and eating, and sex. Even the most mundane tasks—brushing his teeth, applying deodorant­—now require a mental run-through. “Pretty much nothing is automatic anymore,” Jeff says. “I can be walking down a straight concrete sidewalk and I just trip. My toes dig into the concrete.”

He no longer goes out much, in any case. “I became kind of a hermit,” he says. “You get tired of people looking at you. It’s embarrassing to shake. It’s a sign of weakness.”

Following Jeff’s diagnosis, the couple, who live in Grants Pass, Oregon, hired a lawyer and sued Lincoln Electric and four other makers of manganese-containing welding wire and electrodes—also called rods or sticks. Filed in federal District Court in Cleveland, their claim joined thousands of others pending against welding-products manufacturers in state and federal courts. (Employers have not been among the targets because lawyers generally concluded they were ignorant of the metal’s dangers.)

The odds weren’t great. Since the lawsuits began in the 1970s, the position of the $5 billion welding-products industry had remained consistent: There are no reliable scientific data to prove welding fumes cause the Parkinson’s-like syndrome known as parkinsonism—or “manganism” if manganese-related—that many longtime welders experience. It was an argument familiar to anyone acquainted with large-scale toxics litigation, and it seemed to work. Industry had ended up settling a few cases—including a $6.5 million payout to four Florida welders in 1985—but as the Tamrazes went to trial last November, it had won 16 of 17 actual courtroom bouts.

Not long after, though, came a startling revelation. For several years, US District Judge Kathleen O’Malley—whose Ohio courtroom is the fact-finding venue for Tamraz and hundreds of other cases—had watched lawyers squabble over disclosure of alleged payments to researchers studying the effects of manganese on welders. Finally, in December, O’Malley ordered both sides to fess up and provide a “full and complete” accounting of any such payments.

It’s hardly uncommon for an industry to pay for research—think Big Pharma—but the payouts unearthed by O’Malley’s order provide an exceedingly rare view of the system at work. “This has every appearance of the industry buying science,” observed Erin Bigler, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University who studies brain trauma, aging, and autism, after reviewing the documents. “I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve suspected it forever, but I’ve never seen it.”

Court documents obtained by Mother Jones show that the welding companies paid more than $12.5 million to 25 organizations and 33 researchers, virtually all of whom have published papers dismissing connections between welding fumes and workers’ ailments. Most of the money, $11 million, was spent after the litigation achieved critical mass in 2003; attorneys for the welders, meanwhile, spent about half a million.

The pattern doesn’t surprise George Washington University epidemiologist David Michaels, author of Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. Corporate-funded research articles are often “advocacy documents that are being produced purely for use in court cases,” he says. “It’s unfortunate, because it really pollutes the scientific literature.”

Judge O’Malley singled out a researcher named Jon Fryzek, whose large studies of Swedish and Danish welders found no significant link between welding fumes and Parkinson’s symptoms­—but the studies, based almost solely on hospital records, ignored welders who were never hospitalized. O’Malley was particularly troubled to learn that industry lawyers had reviewed a prepublication draft of the Danish study. “[T]here is no doubt that this was not simply an independent study,” she wrote, “and that the experts who participated in the study are continuing to act in an advocacy capacity.” Fryzek worked for Maryland’s International Epidemiology Institute (iei)­—known for its industry-commissioned studies, including one that found no link between radiation and cancer in uranium millers. The institute received more than $971,000 from welding defendants.

The embattled manufacturers also paid $860,000 to Paul Lees-Haley, an Alabama psychologist and inventor of a widely criticized test that often concludes brain-injury patients are malingering. Two consulting firms linked by court documents to C. Warren Olanow, a Manhattan neurologist who has published at least a dozen articles cited by defense experts, got almost $2.9 million. And the Parkinson’s Institute in California got nearly $3.4 million to conduct a four-year study­—not limited to welders—seeking links between Parkinson’s symptoms and factors other than manganese, including smoking and drinking. (The institute’s research director says the work was neither influenced by its funders, nor will she let them see the resulting manuscript until it has been accepted for publication.)

Fryzek, who now works for Amgen, a California biotech company, did not return phone calls and emails; Olanow and Lees-Haley declined comment. iei president Joseph McLaughlin insisted in written statements that the manufacturers “had no say whatsoever” in the study’s conduct or content, and that it is “common” for funders to view unpublished results.

welders are by and large a stoic bunch. At 56, Joe McMahon, a business agent at Steamfitters Local 420 in Philadelphia, has worked in all sorts of hellholes—inside chemical-encrusted cracker units at refineries, for one—and he never obsessed over the acrid white smoke from melted welding rods. If he ever saw warning labels—most of the time, he notes, the rods were out of the can by the time he got them—they seemed meaningless. “It was all small print,” recalls McMahon. “It probably said, ‘Try to avoid breathing smoke.’ Well, how the fuck am I gonna do that?” Supplied-air or cartridge respirators, he says, were pressed on welders at nuclear plants (because of radiation worries), but no one else: “If you wanted a dust mask you could request it, but it wasn’t mandatory.”

Manganese poisoning is hardly a new concern. In a 1932 German paper, industrial doctor Erich Beintker described two patients who welded inside boilers and tanks. One complained of dizziness, ringing ears, sudden sweats, and sleeplessness. The other had developed a speech impediment and balance problems. “A nervous disorder appears to be present here because of the manganese fumes,” Beintker concluded, urging welding companies to share information about the compounds in their products.

In the United States five years later, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company distributed a welding-safety booklet describing manganese as an “important poison” that “causes a disease similar to paralysis agitans“—Parkinson’s. (The welding industry responded by demanding MetLife rewrite the booklet to tamp down the “scare” it had created; the insurer obliged.) In 1943, Occupational Hazards Inc. of Cleveland published an industrial-safety handbook warning of the metal’s paralyzing effects. “Manganese victims usually remain life-long cripples, unfit for gainful employment,” the authors wrote. They encouraged employers to provide ventilation and examine workers four times a year “to detect early signs or symptoms.”

Documents show that welding suppliers knew of the problems. In an October 1949 memo, an executive from Airco Welding Products (now defendant the boc Group) recalled how the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group, had called for warning labels. “Some of the manufacturers did not do this and as a result immediately capitalized on the advantage of being able to sell an electrode which did not have to be marked ‘poison,'” the official wrote. “As a result, one by one, all of the various manufacturers took this information off the label and all were very glad to get it off.”

As evidence of the dangers mounted—”the fumes are far worse than I had any reason to suspect,” another Airco official wrote in 1950—the industry continued to resist warning labels. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the warnings were made explicit. Today, one brand of welding wire bears this caution: “Overexposure to manganese and manganese compounds above safe exposure limits can cause irreversible damage to the central nervous system, including the brain.”

like other industries in the crosshairs of litigation, welding-rod manufacturers have zeroed in on the concept of “safe exposure limits.” Manganese is toxic, they’ve acknowledged, but not at the levels present in their products. In fact, independent researchers have documented a range of symptoms in welders exposed to ordinary levels of the metal, from depression, memory loss, and irritability to the zombielike state of full-blown manganism. Some get “cock walk”—a lurching, toe-heavy gait resembling that of a strutting rooster. A recent study described numbness (61 percent), tremors (42 percent), and hallucinations (19 percent) among 49 welders working on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Epidemiologist Robert Park of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (niosh) says there’s ample evidence that welding fumes wreak havoc on the brain. One of several Korean studies that yielded such evidence in the 1990s, for example, found a significantly greater incidence of speech impairment, tremors, and gait disturbances among welders than nonwelders. “I’d be amazed if there was something else going on instead of manganese,” Park says. And a 2005 study of welders in Alabama (whose medical screenings were paid for by lawyers suing the industry) found a 7- to 10-times higher prevalence of neurological symptoms among the welders than within a control group.

But niosh toxicologist James Antonini says the existing studies lack good exposure data and fail to quantify “confounding factors” such as other workplace neurotoxins. “I don’t think there’s any really solid information out there,” he says. (Antonini accepted an award, albeit no cash, from a prominent welding trade group in 2006 and more recently coauthored, with several industry consultants, a literature review that jibed with the manufacturers’ position. “I’ve tried to work with everybody,” he says.)

niosh‘s official verdict on manganese and welding­­—an exhaustive state-of-the-science report that will lay the pathway for government regulators—is four years overdue; a House science committee chided the agency for the delay last December, noting that the health of some 185,000 highly exposed welders hangs in the balance. niosh division chief Paul Schulte says the delay is nothing unusual: “We have an array of opinions. We’re debating and working through them, and that’s really the issue.”

But Park, who worked on the report, is frustrated. “Right now, what’s happening is that the lawsuits are driving the science, and that’s pretty pathetic,” he says. “I think the fact that it’s contentious has encouraged people not to move forward.”

if you were to graph out the welding industry’s spending on science, you’d see a dramatic uptick in 2003—the year an Illinois jury awarded $1 million to a welder named Larry Elam. The verdict, not surprisingly, turned a trickle of lawsuits into a flood, stoking manufacturers’ fears that welding fumes could become the next asbestos, with the requisite ambulance chasers hopping on the bandwagon of legitimate claims.

Charles Ruth III is no ambulance chaser. Stout and athletic like Tamraz, the 41-year-old welder was diagnosed with manganese-induced parkinsonism in 2000, three years after going to work at the Ingalls Shipyard in Mississippi. When I met him, his face looked blank, his voice was a dull monotone, and his right hand shook ceaselessly. Since his diagnosis, Ruth’s marriage had failed and he’d lost his job, not to mention hunting, fishing, and the church softball league. He can’t even drive anymore—at one point he was detained by an officer convinced by Ruth’s erratic driving that he’d pulled over a drunk. He’s had recurring depression and suicidal thoughts, but hasn’t acted on them because of his girls, ages 10 and 16, and his 8-year-old boy. “I can’t wrestle with my son because I’m scared I might fall on him and hurt him,” Ruth laments. “When I eat, food goes all over me.” No one at Ingalls ever told him, he says, that welding fumes could do this to a man.

Ruth’s father Chuck, a retired vice president at the shipyard, says he, too, was unaware of the dangers. “For me it’s a fairly easy fix,” he says. “You put them in an air-fed welding helmet. They do it with sandblasters and they could do the same thing with welders. But if they do that, that means the industry’s got to admit there’s a problem.” Indeed, when a prominent industrial health organization proposed lowering manganese-exposure limits 25-fold during the 1990s, a trade group that included welding companies griped in a letter that “respirator use would become mandatory at most of our operations” if the new limits were enacted.

Ruth’s case settled on the eve of trial in August 2005 for seven figures. (The exact sum is confidential.) Industry lawyers claimed the settlement was merely the product of a procedural misstep that would have weakened their case. But last fall, while attempting to rebut medical experts during the Tamraz trial, defense lawyer Eric Kennedy explicitly conceded that Ruth has manganism.

Since the Ruth settlement, the industry has let its insecurity show. Last year, the manufacturers launched a PR offensive, hiring a New York firm to prepare an eight-page “welding fume litigation status report” full of statistics designed to steer journalists away from the manganese story; among other things, the report noted that three cases (out of the thousands filed) were dismissed “after discovery revealed that one plaintiff faked his symptoms and two others lied about illicit drug use.”

No one could have claimed Jeffrey Tamraz was malingering—and defense lawyers didn’t, arguing instead that 60,000 Americans each year are diagnosed with Parkinson’s of unknown origin. “Doctors, lawyers, teachers, bus drivers, bricklayers, we all get it,” Kennedy insisted when the case came to court last fall. “And so do welders.” But his argument wasn’t helped when the Tamraz attorneys showed a deposition video in which Toronto neurologist Anthony Lang, an expert witness for the industry, acknowledged that welding fumes likely do cause manganism.

Last December, the jury ordered the five companies to pay Jeff Tamraz $17.5 million, and give his wife $3 million more for loss of consortium. “The manufacturers had 60 years to hide the ball,” says John Climaco, one of the couple’s lawyers. “We’ve now caught up.”

And then some. In March, Mississippi welder Robert Jowers won a $2.4 million verdict against three manufacturers. Some 2,800 cases are still pending against the industry, with another 11,000 on a legal back burner known as a tolling agreement.

When Terry and Jeff Tamraz learned of their verdict, they wept. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Man, we prayed and prayed and prayed.” But the euphoria has worn off. There’s an appeal to get through, and beyond that, an increasingly quiet life. “Jeff doesn’t laugh anymore,” Terry says. “Back when we were dating, he was the life of the party. The conversation between us is minimal now.”

Researcher Sarah Laskow contributed to this report.

Photo by flickr user mattborowick used under a Creative Commons license.


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