In a closely watched case unfolding in federal court, a jury is being asked to take up an intriguing question that has confounded many medical researchers: Can welding fumes cause neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s?
The lawsuit was brought by a former welder who suffers arm tremors and other movement problems that he says could be Parkinson’s. Ernest G. Solis, 57, of Corpus Christi, Texas, is seeking unspecified damages from four welding rod makers.
It is the first trial among about 3,800 lawsuits from around the country that have been consolidated in federal court in Cleveland. Solis’ case could set the ground rules for the other lawsuits.
At issue is whether manganese — a chemical element found in vitamin supplements, tea, nuts and grain, as well as the fumes from burning welding rods — can at high exposures lead to tremors or shaking, poor balance and difficulty walking and swallowing.
'It's a really hot topic'
Companies that make welding equipment argue that any link between fumes and Parkinson’s has not been established, and that in any case, warning labels and welding safety equipment minimize any risk.
“It’s a really hot topic,” said Alan Ducatman, chairman of community medicine at the University of West Virginia. “A lot of people weld and there is manganese in welding rods. Manganese is very bad stuff at very high doses. The problem is defining when doses are high enough to cause a neurological disease. That’s what the research is all about.”
Lawyers representing the plaintiffs point to a recent $1 million verdict for a welder in an Illinois case as an examples of what such lawsuits could cost the industry. Similar cases have gone to court individually around the country, with varying results.
Dr. Edward Baker, a University of North Carolina professor and director of the North Carolina Institute for Public Health, testified as the leadoff witness in Solis’ case that extensive research has linked manganese fumes that emit from welding rods to neurological disorders.
The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation says welding fumes are just one of the suspected but unconfirmed causes of the disorder, which afflicts nearly 1 million people in the United States.
“We don’t know what brings it on,” said Robin Elliott, the foundation’s executive director. “If we knew that, we could know the cause, and then we’d be closer to finding a cure.”
More research needed
James Antonini, a toxicology researcher for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, is leading research on the effects of welding-type fumes on rats to try to pin down a link.
“There’s definitely not a final conclusion on it,” he said. “There is a question whether manganese is even available enough in welding fumes to cause an effect.”
In the scientific journal Neurology a year ago, Dr. Joseph Jankovic, director of the Parkinson’s Disease Center and Movement Disorders Clinic at Baylor University’s College of Medicine, questioned whether reliable or convincing evidence exists that welding is a risk factor for Parkinson’s disease.
Jeff Weber, associate executive director of the Miami-based American Welding Society, said a study the group paid for two years ago did not draw a conclusive link to welding and Parkinson’s disease. “My general impression is there is no great fear among most welders,” Weber said.
Labels on packages of welding rods — the long, thin sticks that become the substance of a weld — warn that fumes may be hazardous but do not draw any link to Parkinson’s. At factories, construction projects and repair shops, some welders use fans to blow away fumes. Others wear breathing devices.
Antonini said all welders would not have the same exposure risk. Some use higher concentrations of manganese than others, depending on the hardness needed in a weld. Some welders work in more confined spaces than others.
Richard Myers started welding when he was 15 and said he feels fine at age 59. He has made his 32-year-old son a partner in his small Cleveland-area business.
“I’ve worked in shops. I’ve done a lot of maintenance welding, all kind of different jobs,” he said. “I do it on average eight to 10 hours a week. I always try to have a fan in the work area to blow fumes away.”