Composite materials commonly used in the aerospace industry pose a “widespread” threat to jet plant workers, medical experts told a Senate subcommittee Monday, charging two leading manufacturers with failing to provide safe working conditions for employees.
Lockheed and Boeing employees in Burbank and Seattle respectively have suffered severe headaches, rashes, chest pains and damage to the central nervous system because of exposure to chemicals in the composites--lightweight materials made of plastics mixed with carbon, ceramic or synthetic fibers, the doctors told the subcommittee.
But representatives of the firms defended themselves, saying they had improved handling of the materials, which they had believed safe and which appeal to the industry because of their strength and resistance to fire.
And though they sought to dissuade senators from considering new rules governing composites--which absorb rather than reflect radar waves and thus are used extensively in military craft such as the stealth fighter--at least one lawmaker said Monday that he believes that more regulations are needed.
Sen. Harry Reid (R-Nev.), chairman of the toxic substances subcommittee of the Environment and Public Works Committee, opened the hearings on composites Monday, saying: “These impressive leaps in technology have made us a more productive society. But is it possible that advancing technology is also making us sick?”
After the hearing, he said he believes that legislation is needed to strengthen laws on toxic substances in the workplace and to provide for more stringent enforcement of existing regulations. “It is clear that things can’t continue going the way they are,” he said. “Certainly we have to do a better job than we are.”
Exposure victims and health experts argued that composites must be handled with specific safety procedures--such as good ventilation and the use of respirators and gloves.
Told They Were Safe
Those steps were not required at Boeing or Lockheed, despite repeated employee appeals, some victims told the subcommittee Monday.
Bonnie Faye Schrum, who worked at Boeing for 10 years, said her supervisors told her that the materials “wouldn’t hurt you. Later on, they said you have to wear gloves (and) masks. But most of the time they didn’t even have them.”
Schrum said her work at Boeing caused her to suffer severe headaches, lack of energy and memory loss. But “you either worked with this material or you didn’t have a job,” she said.
Allergist Gordon Baker said his examination of more than 130 Boeing employees who had become ill after exposure to the composite materials shows that “we have a widespread problem that we are just beginning to recognize.”
Baker said many Boeing employees he examined showed signs of “organic brain poisoning,” a condition that affects personality and rational judgment and “tends not to get better.”
Dr. Robert Ballster, of the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, agreed that changes need to be made in federal rules governing use of chemicals in the workplace. “There are many, many chemicals that can affect the nervous system, and we need some type of improvement” in the toxic substances act, he said.
Noted Dr. Alan Broughton, of the Antibody Assay Laboratories in Santa Ana: “There is no doubt in our mind that low-level exposure to chemicals such as formaldehyde (which is used in some composites) causes human illness (that is) debilitating, and often patients complain of an inability to exist in modern society.”
Joseph Peritore, a Boeing vice president, defended his company, saying that initial tests found the materials to be safe. After the company received many worker complaints, he noted, toxic elements in the composites were eliminated.
“Many of the materials used to create composites today have some toxic properties and present some risk, but they can be used safely,” he said, adding that, “throughout this entire episode, Boeing not only met, but significantly bettered all regulatory standards for safety.”
While conceding past problems, Dale Daniels, Lockheed executive vice president, told senators that new rules to govern composites in the workplace are not needed.
“I have now told the employees (that) if they are not sure it is safe, don’t do it,” he said, adding that enforcement of existing safety rules and better internal company communication would help solve problems.
But representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration called for more action against toxic materials.