Federal investigators are looking into complaints that workers have become ill from exposure to toxic chemicals at a San Diego plant operated by the U.S. Navy and General Dynamics, which was fined recently for mishandling suspected carcinogens at the facility.
Officials at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a federal worker-safety institute, next month intend to study blood samples from plant workers and air samples from the facility for the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
"We intend to see the extent and level of the contamination, if there is any, and to see what the body burden of PCB these folks are carrying around with them," William Albrecht, a toxicologist with NIOSH's hazard evaluation branch in Ohio, said Wednesday.
The NIOSH evaluation comes at the request of a union local representing a small number of the workers in the plant, a sprawling facility off Pacific Highway near Lindbergh Field known as Air Force Plant 19 that has been the subject of state and federal scrutiny since 1985.
Over the past two years, numerous plant workers have registered complaints: Security guards say they became sick while working there, a Navy electronics technician has taken court action against General Dynamics and the Navy, and others have complained to the union local.
Their complaints include a host of ailments including nausea, headaches, dizziness, heart palpitations and anxiety. Some say they believe, but have little proof, that their problems stem from exposure to PCBs and to fumes from a heat treatment device used in the plant.
"Talking to the workers, there are signs that the symptoms they are experiencing are unique, not the type of things you're going to run across in everyday illness," said Mike Bush, a Tulsa attorney who has handled other PCB cases and is working with the union.
U.S. Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) said, "There's no question they got sick, and there's no question that conditions were bad there. . . . I think it's outrageous that they're (NIOSH) coming in after the fact. It's as if the people are a low priority."
Meanwhile, Bates said investigators for the inspector general for the Department of Defense were in San Diego Wednesday scrutinizing the agreement under which General Dynamics leases the facility with no formal rent from the Air Force and subleases part of it back to the Navy.
Bates said the investigators are looking into $116,000 worth of "illegal maintenance" provided by the Navy, and the question of "whether it's legal for General Dynamics to take a rent-free facility that the government gives them and sublease 20% of it back to the government."
On Wednesday, a Navy spokeswoman in Washington said she was unable to get a full response on behalf of the Navy to the news of the NIOSH evaluation. She said simply, "I'm sure that the Navy will comply with the requests of the Health and Human Services Department."
Jack Isabel, a spokesman for General Dynamics, said tests last year by the Navy and Cal-OSHA, the state worker-safety agency, had failed to turn up evidence of airborne PCBs. Since then, he said, the company and the Air Force have removed all equipment containing PCBs.
"There have been a lot of monitoring devices put in place there," Isabel said. "Yes, there have been spills. But they have been minor kinds of things. There has never been a major spill at Plant 19."
Isabel also said, "As far as the Quick Quench (heat treatment device) goes, it is General Dynamics' opinion that the Quick Quench tank is certainly not a health hazard, because it gives off steam vapors when in operation."
Air Force Plant 19 is located on 75 acres and includes 1,578,000 square feet of land and buildings. Its occupants include General Dynamics' Convair Division, the Naval Electronic Systems Engineering Center and the Defense Contract Services Administration, Isabel said.
General Dynamics uses the facilities as a machine shop for parts fabrication, and the military's Atlas and Centaur launch vehicle tanks were built there, Isabel said. He said the mid-fuselage for the space shuttle and cruise missile launchers have also been built there.
Until recently, the plant housed transformers containing oils with PCBs, which were used for many years in transformer and capacitor fluids. After PCB production was banned in 1978, government regulations mandated that all PCB equipment gradually be retired.
Complaints Began in '85
Early complaints about the plant came from security guards working for a firm hired by the Navy. In mid-1985, they complained to their firm of headaches, nausea and persistent sore throats, said Bruce Johnson, a 31-year-old guard now working for a property management firm.
Johnson said he filed a complaint with Cal-OSHA, which inspected the plant in late 1985. Although Cal-OSHA found the plant in compliance with state laws, Johnson and other workers remain convinced they were exposed to PCBs and other toxics.
Shortly afterwards, the EPA inspected the plant and alleged numerous violations of the federal law governing handling of PCB equipment. The charges included transformers leaking PCB oils, inadequate record-keeping and improper storage of equipment using PCBs.
Last December, General Dynamics agreed to pay a $20,000 fine imposed by EPA. While company officials agreed to make the required changes, they admitted no wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, Roy Gunner, a San Diego attorney, said he filed a claim last year against the Navy on behalf of a Navy electronics technician who formerly worked at Plant 19. Gunner said Wednesday that the claim alleges that his client became sick from exposure to toxics at the plant.
Gunner said he also filed suit against General Dynamics last month in Superior Court in San Diego on behalf of the same client. Under federal law, Gunner said, he must await the Navy's response to his claim before he can file suit against the Navy.
Blood Samples Planned
Finally, John Shiposki, a representative with Local 3723 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which he said represents about 70 of the many hundreds of workers at Plant 19, contacted NIOSH, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
As a result, Albrecht and two other NIOSH officials visited the plant in February and met with representatives of all sides. After that initial two-day visit, they decided to conduct a more complete evaluation in May, Albrecht said Wednesday.
Albrecht said the team would take blood samples from any current and former workers, who are to be brought together by Shiposki. He said they would sample the blood for the presence of PCBs, which depending upon their makeup, can last years in the blood stream.
He said an industrial hygienist will also take air samples in the plant and analyze them for airborne PCBs. Albrecht said NIOSH expects to concentrate on PCBs because those appear to be the source of greatest concern.
"In situations like this, people often experience symptoms before any given agents are identified," said Albrecht, who is part of the hazard evaluation unit of NIOSH. " . . . They just want answers, and our agency helps to find those answers."