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Who pays when cancer strikes?

Workers fight for justice 15 years after
deadly factory closes
[Hazards 64, page 10, October - December 1998]

In 1977 Hazards warned that a Derbyshire PVC factory could have put workers at risk of developing cancer at the end of the century. It took local trade union research this year to confirm the factory's former workforce has been decimated by disease.

When he worked at the Vinatex PVC plant in the early 1970s, Colin Hadfield often marvelled at his good fortune. "It was the best job I ever had, the easiest job I ever had," Hadfield said. "I kept asking, 'Is there any danger?'"

Assured by management that there wasn't, Hadfield put in four and a half years at the plant, a joint venture of US company Conoco and a now-defunct British company, Staveley Chemicals Ltd. After opening in 1969, the company quickly became very successful, running 40 reactors converting vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) to PVC.

Pollution levels, however, were sometimes criminally high. One 1973 reading showed a VCM level of 50,000 parts per million - 100 to 1,000 times the level most manufacturers then considered safe. Still, the company doctor at that time told workers suffering early symptoms that VCM was "harmless", so safe it had been used as an anaesthetic.

Colin Hadfield developed the VCM-related bone condition acroosteolysis and Raynaud's disease, which caused his fingers to whiten and go numb. He became impotent, had pounding headaches, was constantly tired. In a sense, Hadfield is lucky. He doesn't have cancer - as far as he knows - and has made it to age 63.

This Vinatex tale was not an unforeseen disaster, nor was the suffering of dozens of other former Vinatex workers who inhaled vinyl chloride at levels far exceeding even the most lenient standards of the time and who are now dead or dying.

A 1977 Hazards article warned: "Dozens of men, employed at Vinatex... were exposed to high doses of vinyl chloride... It is now known to cause a rare form of cancer. It will be 20 or 30 years before Vinatex workers will know how many of them will be struck down by this disease."[1]

By the early 1980s, 35 Vinatex workers with acroosteolysis had been won compensation with the assistance of their unions, GMB and AEEU. By 1984 the company was out of business.

While the jobs and the company disappeared, its toxic legacy, as Hazards had warned, lived on. But it took the former Vinatex workers to prove it.

The truth started to emerge after John Knight of North Derbyshire Trade Union Safety Committee (TUSC) was invited along to a workers' reunion. Earlier this year an initial meeting investigating health problems linked to the factory was attended by over 40 people. Two had the tell-tale VCM-related liver cancer angiosarcoma. Another ex-worker, it was reported, had just died of the same cancer. Many others reported problems including impotence and heart disease.

Research by TUSC, risk maps (see Hazards 60) and accounts from bereaved relatives suggest few of the workers escaped unscathed. John Knight estimates that about 40 per cent of the roughly 280 people who worked at Vinatex during its 15-year history are now dead.

Here, no-one has been called to account for this death and disease. In Italy, it is a different story.

Thirty-one former executives of two Italian chemical companies are standing trial and may go to jail for manslaughter after ignoring warnings and allowing their employees to breathe horrific amounts of vinyl chloride and its relative, ethylene dichloride, inside a plant at Porto Marghera.

The US newspaper the Houston Chronicle reported that the indictment reads: "Cagionavano il delitto di strage" - they caused the crime of massacre.

More than 150 former workers at the plant - owned first by Montedison, then Enichem - have died of cancer since 1973, and another 600 or so are thought to be suffering from work-related illnesses.

The criminal proceedings started in March and are expected to last a year. They have already had an impact.

In late May, most of the 500 or so individual plaintiffs in the case - sick workers and relatives of those who died - accepted a settlement in excess of £22 million from the two companies.

In the early 1970s, documents show, Montedison and other European manufacturers formed an alliance with American companies such as Dow Chemical and Union Carbide, trading health information about vinyl chloride and at one point signing a secrecy agreement forbidding the disclosure of research findings.

Today, while the Italian executives fear for their liberty, those responsible for the operation of UK and US plants - who had the same information, about the same operations, at the same time - have not attracted the attention of the law.

For many of the former Vinatex workers, any thought of compensation or justice remains a distant hope. For some, it is already too late.

[1] Hazards Bulletin, issue 2, May 1976, and issue 6, April 1977.