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Ill ex-prison employees blame work program

Hundreds of federal prison workers say an electronics recycling program is to blame for their illnesses after they claim exposure to high levels of heavy metals and other toxic materials.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When former prison worker Freda Cobb developed sores on her arms, legs and back in 1997, she didn't connect them to an inmate work program that recycles computers and other electronic goods at the penal institution in the Florida Panhandle.

Nor when her hair fell out, when she had abdominal pains, when her weight shot up or when she developed other symptoms.

Now, however, the 49-year-old medically retired guard and cook supervisor at Marianna Federal Correctional Institution is certain that byproducts of the electronic recycling program are to blame for those ills, as well as her memory loss, temporary blindness, ear pain and migraine headaches. Her uterus was removed after tripling in size.

She and hundreds of other federal prison workers, inmates and others with similar complaints in Florida and six other states say the program — which has been criticized in a government report for inadequate safety procedures — exposed them to high levels of heavy metals and other toxic material.

Some, including Cobb, have gone to court with their complaints. Their attorneys claim that some people have died from toxic exposure connected to the program.

"I want them to pay for the wrong they have done," said Cobb, who took medical retirement in 2004 and has become a leader in the effort to win compensation. "It's not fair. It needs to be stopped."

She says victims inhaled metallic dust that filled the air like pollen and took it home or back to prison dormitories and dining facilities on their clothing. Fans blew the dust throughout buildings that housed the recycling activities. People who came to buy computers at flea market-like sales say they also were exposed. Parents who used a day care center about 100 feet from the warehouse where the work was done are worried, too.

Cobb didn't suspect the recycling program might be to blame until her mother, Camilla Norris, began having symptoms similar to her own. She, too, had gone there to buy computers. Before dying in 2006 at 73 of bladder and kidney cancer, she asked Cobb to make her a promise.

"She said, 'I want you to promise me that you will find the truth,'" Cobb said.

Cobb and another plaintiff have filed a lawsuit aimed at shutting down the Marianna operation as a public nuisance under Florida environmental law.

A federal judge last year dismissed an earlier lawsuit filed on behalf of 26 current and former staffers, including Cobb, as well as inmates. It sought a declaratory judgment, injunction and the release of documents on dangers and safety risks of recycling.

One of the plaintiffs' lawyers, Patrick Frank, cited the case of former Marianna guard Tanya Smith, who was 36 when she died two years ago. An autopsy report attributed her death to cardiac arrest with obesity a contributing factor. Frank, however, said Smith had no medical problems until she began working at the recycling facility and then suffered a complete autoimmune breakdown.

Prison officials say the recycling is safe. Marianna warden Paige Augustine denied an Associated Press request to visit and photograph the facility, which opened in 1994. In a letter, Augustine cited "institutional safety and security reasons."

About 1,000 inmates around the country — roughly 200 of them at Marianna — salvage nearly 40 million pounds of metals, plastic and other materials annually for Federal Prison Industries, which operates under the trade name UNICOR.

Other recycling facilities are at Fort Dix, N.J.; Leavenworth, Kan.; Lewisburg, Pa.; Tucson, Ariz.; Atwater, Calif.; and Texarkana, Texas. A plant at Elkton, Ohio, closed two years ago because of contamination.

Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said the recycling operation had a net loss of $308,000 in the last fiscal year. She declined comment on pending and proposed lawsuits and the allegations they contain.

Billingsley, though, wrote in an e-mail that all inmates and staff must wear protective equipment and UNICOR "is committed to compliance with all applicable health, safety and environmental requirements."

Glass computer monitors and television screens containing lead, cadmium, and beryllium, used to be broken with hammers. Billingsley said that operation was shut down in May 2009 for economic reasons, not safety concerns. Those components now go to a third party for processing.

There are no safe levels for cadmium and beryllium exposure because both cause cancer, said toxicologist Richard Lipsey of Jacksonville. He said lead attacks the central nervous system as well as the kidneys, blood and lower gastrointestinal tract.

Some electronic gear also includes mercury, a neurotoxin that "can make you stupid fast," Lipsey said. He added that it's particularly hazardous for pregnant women "because the fetus acts as a sponge and will clean the mother's body of mercury so when the fetus is born it may be deaf, dumb, crippled, paralyzed."

Lawyers for those seeking damages have consulted with Lipsey, who appears in court as an expert witness for both plaintiffs and defendants, but they have not yet retained him.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal agency, found numerous problems when it visited Marianna, Atwater, Texarkana and Elkton in 2008 and 2009. It concluded officials failed to conduct an adequate planning and job hazard analysis before launching the recycling program, initially at Marianna and then other institutions.

"Potential health hazards were not identified in a timely manner, no training was provided to UNICOR staff or inmate workers, and adequate hazard controls were not established for up to several years," the report states.

Still, the study found that while some inmates and staff were exposed to toxins beyond safe levels, the vast majority of exposures were below those limits. The report, though, acknowledged data was incomplete.

Frank called the report "a whitewash job literally and figuratively."

The lawyers plan to file individual lawsuits seeking damages only on behalf of non-inmates. Frank said his firm has received hundreds of letters from current and former inmates who want to sue, but that's almost impossible as federal law requires them first to go through a multistep grievance process and restricts lawyer fees and awards.

One outsider who plans to sue is Gail Mayes, 68. She had gone to the Marianna recycling facility to buy computers, television sets and components.

Mayes had no explanation for her short-term memory loss, weight gain, congestive heart failure, joint pain and skin sores. Then Cobb, whom she knew from church, spoke about her own symptoms.

"I'm sitting there saying, 'She's talking about me,'" Mayes recalled.