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Copeland's memories from inside the plant brim with details that would make an OSHA inspector faint. Workers and supervisors goofed off by rolling marble-sized balls of mercury down the hallways. Employees soaked their fingertips in a solvent called trichloroethane, finding that it made their nails grow a quarter inch overnight. "Especially when we were jitterbuggin' back then," Copeland says, "you'd want the girls at the club to say, 'Oh, you got pretty nails.'"
Copeland is in good health, but he's hard on himself when he thinks about all the workers he sent to the plant's medical department with complaints of coughs and lingering colds. The medical staff handed out cough drops and Robitussin and sent people back to work. "That medical department has been treating people for respiratory problems like they're the common cold for over 40 years, knowing it could have been berylliosis," Copeland says.
Copeland convenes a meeting at the home of a former plant worker who asked to go by a pseudonym, Irene. Another former worker, Herman Oates Jr., also attends. Oates, 71, plated metal in the factory from 1968 to 1986. Irene worked in the maintenance department from 1982 until 2003. Her janitorial work required being on her hands and knees, sweeping behind vats of chemicals, and using a cherry picker to reach the factory ceiling in order to dust pipes, all while wearing street clothes.
"We had to clean the big industrial fan houses, the boiler rooms, all that," Irene says. "When they found areas that were contaminated heavy, that's when they would rope it off and wouldn't allow anyone else in there, but we had to go in and clean it up."
She never wore a mask, she says. "We'd sweep, and sometimes they had us wet it down, but in the beginning we were just spreading dust everywhere."
Oates often worked over heated tanks of chemicals. In Department 71, he remembers, "We put parts into this machine and put metal on them — copper, chrome, gold. We put those parts on an X-ray machine to check the thicknesses of the layers. That's radiation. We was exposed to all kinds of junk in that place."
Irene went to the Department of Labor's medical screenings but didn't test positive for beryllium sensitivity.
In 2005, Irene's primary physician sent her to a specialist, who found lung cancer. After surgeons removed a portion of Irene's lower left lung, they found that the tissue was also infected with berylliosis. Her doctor told her that a steroid cream she had used to treat hives may have prevented an earlier diagnosis. (Honeywell routinely offered steroid cream to workers who complained of hives or other skin irritations.)
Irene undergoes testing every three months to keep an eye on the disease. But even though her lung biopsy proved that she has berylliosis, she says she has been denied compensation from the EEOICP because the disease hasn't shown up in blood tests. "They [the case managers] told me they wanted to see this condition progress," Irene says. "They even said they'd wait and see if I got another cancer. Now why would I have to get another cancer? I ask them, 'Do you want me to die?'"
Irene and her doctor have submitted a revised claim to the Department of Labor. A ruling is pending.
Oates has prostate cancer, high blood pressure and degenerative arthritis. He lives on benefits that he gets as a Vietnam vet and from Social Security. He says he has had a cough for the past 20 years.