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The Plastic Coffin of Charlie Arthur

He was not unlike the others who worked the polyvinyl chloride vats. They all learned too late that one man’s bread and butter may also be his poison

Factory, CancerFactory, Cancer

Chimney of tire factory emitting black smoke, conceptual image

Jeremy Walker/Getty

Mr. McGuire: Ben, I want to say one word to you, just one word.
Ben: Yes sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Ben: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Ben: Exactly how do you mean that?
Mr. McGuire: There is a great future in plastics.
— from The Graduate

The most terrifying thing is the cleanliness of the operation; no belching smokestacks, no grime, no sludge dumped in the river, no mess. The factory is located on a peaceful country road less than a mile from Lake Erie in Avon Lake, Ohio. The lawns are freshly mowed. There are even flowers in well-manicured beds. On the front lawn there is a modest sign with the corporate logo: B.F. Goodrich.

From the road, you can see a modern building — the B.F. Goodrich Development Center — which smacks of better living through chemistry. Behind the technical center is the factory itself, a jumble of vats and pipes and tanks, emitting small, benign puffs of white smoke. The very model of corporate good citizenship, it would seem.

Inside the factory, they transform vinyl chloride gas, which is a petroleum byproduct, into a powder which is the second most common form of plastic, polyvinyl chloride. It is a miracle powder, and when they opened the factory just after World War II, the officials of B.F. Goodrich must have been proud. Here was a substance that could (and would) change the world. It was cheap to manufacture and it could be put to a mind-boggling array of uses. In fact, the most distinctive characteristic of the miracle powder was the many things it could become. It could be hard or soft. It was fire resistant. It was durable. It could become upholstery that looked like leather or a clear sheet, like transparent plastic wrap, that looked like glass and crumpled like paper. It became phonograph records, shower curtains, credit cards, nipples for baby bottles, coating for wires, artificial turf, cellophane tape … the list is endless. It is virtually impossible to go a day without coming into contact with some form of polyvinyl chloride.

But there was another property of polyvinyl chloride that turned out to be even more remarkable than its myriad of uses: the vinyl chloride gas, which is the base for the miracle powder, induces a rare form of liver cancer that is guaranteed to produce a quick and painful death. Recently, it killed one of the workers at the B.F. Goodrich plant in Avon Lake, a man named Charlie Arthur.

Now Charlie Arthur was not the first person to die of liver cancer caused by vinyl chloride, and he certainly won’t be the last. His case was not much different than the others on record; his life was not much different than the other workers’ at Avon Lake. He was 47 years old, a good employee, a devoted husband and father. He lived in a small ranch house on a quiet street. He was never arrested, never caused much of a stir of any kind. In fact, there is little that distinguishes Charlie Arthur’s life from millions of others … which makes his death all the more frightening.

Vinyl chloride isn’t the only chemical that causes cancer. No one knows how many chemicals cause cancer. Experts can’t even agree on how many chemicals exist. Almost every major corporation has scientists who sit in laboratories, playing with different combinations of atoms, occasionally coming up with a new combination — a new chemical. It happens virtually every day. Estimates range from nine new chemicals a week (468 a year) to several thousand a year. And if 1000 new chemicals are developed each year, scientists say it’s a safe bet that at least a half dozen will cause cancer.

In 1835, a Frenchman named Regnault was playing around in his lab and discovered vinyl chloride. It wasn’t until 37 years later that a German named Baumann exposed some vinyl chloride to the sun and found that it formed a white powder. It wasn’t until 1926 that Dr. Waldo Semon, a scientist working for B.F. Goodrich, figured out that the powder could be used commercially … and a completely new substance, polyvinyl chloride, was introduced into our environment. There was no reason to suspect, at that point, that when vinyl chloride came in contact with living cells it could cause those cells to go berserk and become cancerous. Since the incubation period for cancer generally runs from 15 to 30 years, it was a long time before the evidence started coming in. Only now are people beginning to question the fact that chemicals are routinely considered innocent by government and industry until proven guilty.

Some other relevant facts:

  • Cancer is responsible for approximately one out of every four deaths. In 1974, an estimated 358,400 people died of it.
  • More people are dying of cancer all the time. Through the early Seventies, the cancer rate increased at about one percent per year. In the first seven months of 1975, though, there was a major leap: the rate increased by five percent. Part of the reason for the annual increase is that people are living longer and, because of its long incubation period, cancer is a disease of old age. But another reason for the increase probably can be traced to the introduction of all these new synthetic chemicals over the last 50 years
  • It is generally agreed among scientists that 80 to 90 percent of all cancers are probably environmentally caused.
  • It stands to reason that the people who run the greatest risk of getting cancer caused by these new chemicals are the people who deal with the chemicals most directly. Factory workers, for example. (Historical footnote: 1975 was the bicentennial of the discovery of work-related cancer. In 1775, Percival Pott found cancer of the scrotum among chimney sweeps in London. He deduced that this was caused by their proximity to coal dust and recommended, among other things, that they take baths once a week.) While it’s difficult to say how many workers die each year of job-related cancer, the official government estimate for all job-related deaths is 100,000 annually, staggering but wildly underestimated.

The problem is this: it is virtually impossible to say for sure what causes a given cancer. Vinyl chloride was easier to pinpoint than most because it caused a very rare type of cancer. But an asbestos worker dies of lung cancer: was it the asbestos? or cigarette smoke? or eating moldly peanuts? or just breathing city air? You can show that rats laced with a certain chemical get cancer and die. You can show that a certain chemical causes mutations in bacteria. You can do detective work and put two and two together and make an educated guess, but when it comes to cancer in humans, there is rarely a smoking pistol.

Still, given the circumstantial evidence, it is fair to say that we are seeing the beginnings of a cancer epidemic among chemical workers, an epidemic that may spill over and affect the general population, an epidemic that the government and big business are only reluctantly beginning to admit.

“Essentially what we have here is a welfare system,” says Tony Mazzocchi, an official of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. “The companies are subsidized by the lives of their workers.”

Or, more specifically, in the words of one of Charlie Arthur’s friends: “Charlie was always at the top of the list alphabetically. You know, his last name was Arthur. And then he becomes the first one of us to die of this thing. You’ve gotta wonder if it’s gonna work like that, if it’s gonna run right through the list alphabetically.”

Charlie Arthur was born in West Virginia on July 22nd, 1928. His mother died when he was very young and he was raised by his father, a lumberjack. His father was a very religious man and taught Charlie the Bible.

As a teenager, pretty much left to his own devices, Charlie decided to join the Navy and see the world. He was stationed for a while in New York, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and he rapidly developed the reputation among the young ladies of the community as a Casanova of sorts. He was quite handsome — a relatively large man, just over six feet tall and 200 pounds — and he seemed to know it. He swaggered when he walked. He was charming, if not clever … a bit of a tease.

He was transferred to Norfolk, but still returned to Brooklyn from time to time. On one of these trips he met a shy little blond named Helen Pawlack. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight — Helen thought Charlie was conceited and was wary of his advances. But Charlie persisted and within a year they were married in a modest civil ceremony at Norfolk.

The Navy had been fine for a single guy, but now Charlie had a wife and soon there was a baby on the way. He left the service and for a while he worked at a tire store in Norfolk. Then he and Helen moved to New York to be near her family. But there was no work to be had in New York and they moved to Painesville, Ohio, where Charlie had a sister. She told them there were jobs in the area and he immediately found work in a local factory. But business was bad and it seemed likely the company would close so Helen and Charlie began taking long drives to the area west of Cleveland along Lake Erie, putting in applications at the various factories there and waiting. Eventually he received a call from the B.F. Goodrich plant at Avon Lake.

Goodrich was considered a great place to work in those days. The pay was better, as were the fringe benefits. And the work itself was much preferable to, say, the noise and heat and obvious dangers at the U.S. Steel plant in nearby Lorain. There was job security — the plastics industry was growing like crazy in the early Fifties.

Charlie hired on as a poly cleaner in 1954. It was his job to climb into the vats where the vinyl chloride gas was heated and mixed and transformed into the miracle powder, and clean them. After a batch was cooked, Charlie would climb down into the vat with a bucket and scraper and literally scrape the residue off the walls so the vat would be clean for the next batch.

Strange things happened around those vats. The vinyl chloride gas was colorless and odorless in small concentrations. In high concentrations, though, it had a very distinct smell, a sweet smell, “like something in a bakery,” according to one of Charlie’s friends. “Like ether,” according to another.

When the workers breathed the gas in high concentrations, as they often did, they got high. Sometimes they passed out completely. The gas was very cold and the standing rule was if you went down into one of the vats and your legs started feeling cold, and then your testicles, to start climbing out fast or you might not make it out at all.

Inevitably, some of the guys came to enjoy getting high on vinyl chloride. They would lean over into the vats and breathe deeply … and then do it again. “Some would become like alcoholics,” says one longtime Goodrich worker “They would breathe it again and again until they passed out.” But even for those who didn’t like the gas, who were afraid of it, there wasn’t all that much choice. Accidents were common. There were gas leaks and people would be overcome. “We washed our hands in it,” says the worker. “We swam in it.”

It was certainly curious stuff, this vinyl chloride. But perfectly harmless, the men were led to believe. The foremen would tell them, “There’s nothing in this factory that can hurt you. If there was, we wouldn’t allow it.” In fact, when a new worker was hired, he was given a plant tour and introduced to the vats. “Lean over and smell that,” he would be told. “That’s vinyl chloride.”

If Charlie Arthur had any reservations about working with the magic gas and the miracle powder, he kept them to himself. He and Helen rented an apartment, then bought a house on a quiet street of identical ranch houses in nearby Elyria. They raised four children. He went bowling, went fishing, played a little golf and sometimes would stop off for a beer with the guys on the way home from work (he would occasionally tell them stories of his days in the Navy, like the time he got drunk and wound up sleeping in a chicken coop). But most of his free time was spent around his house and family. He was devoted to his children and would take them to the doctor when there was an emergency, to the dentist, everywhere. He doted on Helen — taking her shopping, taking out the garbage, continually finding new little things he could do around the house to make it nicer. Sometimes he would earn a little extra money by picking apples in the local orchard.

Each morning he would kiss Helen goodbye and go to work. Sometimes she would be angry with him and say, “No, I won’t kiss you this morning.” And he’d say, “Well, I might have a car accident and then you’d really be sorry, wouldn’t you?” And Helen would always wind up kissing him.

For 20 years, they lived like that. Crime, the war in Vietnam, Watergate had virtually no effect on their lives. For 13 years, Charlie worked in and around the vats. Then he was transferred to other parts of the factory away from the gas — but it really made no difference in his life. His wife, his children, his friends would later remember that Charlie Arthur rarely complained about anything.

Then, on January 22nd, 1974, the B.F. Goodrich Company dropped a bomb. It announced that three workers at its Louisville, Kentucky, poly vinyl chloride plant had died since 1970 of a liver cancer called angiosarcoma — an extremely rare form of cancer. The company said it was investigating the “relationship” between angiosarcoma and vinyl chloride.

On January 29th, 1974, Goodrich reported that a fourth employee had died of angiosarcoma.

On February 15th, Goodrich reported the death of a fifth employee.

On February 21st, the Union Carbide Corporation reported the death of a vinyl chloride worker due to angiosarcoma.

On March 1st, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company announced the death of a vinyl chloride worker due to angiosarcoma.

On March 6th, Goodrich announced cases of liver angiosarcoma in two living employees.

On March 22nd, Goodyear announced two more fatalities.

On April 16th, the Firestone Plastics Company announced its first case. The chemical companies said they were shocked. They said they would do everything they could to improve conditions in their vinyl chloride operations to prevent worker exposures. If they had only known, they said, they would have moved a long time before, if they had only known …

But a case can be made that the companies did know, or at least had strong suspicions, that vinyl chloride was something more than a benign industrial laughing gas. As early as 1949, or five years before Charlie began climbing down into vats at Avon Lake, Russian scientists reported liver damage in 15 of 48 exposed vinyl chloride workers. But these were Russian workers, communists. The study was ignored. In 1961, another study found “repeated exposure to vinyl chloride at concentrations considerably below that level that has been considered safe for human exposure [500 parts of vinyl chloride per million parts of air — 500 ppm] has been shown to have an effect on the liver and kidneys of laboratory animals.” The same year, Dr. V. K. Rowe, doing research for the Dow Chemical Company, found liver damage at exposure levels as low as 100 ppm in laboratory animals, and Dow decided to set a level of 50 ppm in its plants.

The studies continued. In 1970, an Italian scientist linked vinyl chloride with cancer in animals. In January 1973, a group of American chemical manufacturers met with another Italian scientist, Dr. Cesare Maltoni, who showed them definitive proof that vinyl chloride caused liver cancer in rats. Maltoni was working for a group of European chemical manufacturers who wanted his findings kept secret. The American companies were all too happy to agree — so for the year before the Goodrich announcement, the companies covered up Maltoni’s findings that vinyl chloride caused cancer.

And there is evidence that, at least in Goodrich’s case, the coverup had begun nine years earlier. In 1965, a worker named Earl Parks at Goodrich’s Louisville plant filed a workman’s compensation claim for liver disabilities caused by working with vinyl chloride. The company contested the claim but acknowledged that it had removed Parks from contact with vinyl chloride because of his liver ailment. During the hearing before the state workman’s compensation board, Parks attempted to introduce evidence of liver ailments among his fellow employees but the company blocked him. Still, the Kentucky authorities were sufficiently convinced to order the company to pay a partial claim. As the years progressed, Parks’s condition worsened and the amount the company was forced to pay increased. In March 1973, Parks died of angiosarcoma. His was one of the three deaths Goodrich reported on January 22nd, 1974.

Back in Avon Lake, the Goodrich workers took the news of the new occupational disease in stride. They would say to each other: sure there were polyvinyl chloride workers dying of liver cancer in Louisville, but that’s not here. Maybe conditions are different in Louisville. Maybe they’re worse. If this thing is so serious, how come nobody’s getting sick here?

Charlie Arthur talked to Helen about liver cancer, but only once. He said there had been some problems at the factory in Louisville but the company was going to spend $42 million to improve conditions, so it would probably be all right. The company would take care of everything. It always had.

Throughout 1974, the vinyl chloride bomb continued to explode. Almost immediately, it became apparent that not only factory workers were in trouble but the general public as well.

Vinyl chloride gas, it was found, was used as a propellant for aerosol sprays. On April 3rd, Clairol announced it was recalling 100,000 bottles of hair spray.

On April 4th, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a study that showed that if a typical antiseptic room spray were sprayed for 30 seconds in a typical bathroom, the result would be a vinyl chloride concentration of 400 ppm, well above the levels shown to cause cancer in rats.

On April 17th, the Food and Drug Administration announced the recall of 29 brands of aerosol products containing vinyl chloride.

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration was investigating another, potentially more terrifying, form of exposure to vinyl chloride. In 1973, Schenley Distillers had experimented with plastic bottles and found that they caused the taste of various liquors to change. On further inspection, it was learned that the change in taste was caused by vinyl chloride gas escaping the plastic bottles and mixing in with the liquor. These findings were reported to the FDA, which began studying the effects of polyvinyl chloride packaging on other foods. Eventually it was found that vinyl chloride gas escaped into fatty substances as well, like meat in supermarkets, which was routinely packed in polyvinyl chloride plastic. The FDA began studying what to do about this.

Laboratory experiments continued. And scientists were unable (and remain unable) to find a level at which vinyl chloride did not cause cancer. Obviously, the greater the exposure, the greater the risk. But even if only a miniscule fraction of all people who came in contact with polyvinyl chloride (which is to say everybody) would wind up with angiosarcoma, it would mean an outbreak of epidemic proportions among the general population. And since polyvinyl chloride products didn’t come into common use until the Fifties and Sixties, it would be years before the cases would begin to appear.

In June, the state of Connecticut — which keeps records of all cancer patients — checked back and found six confirmed cases of angiosarcoma in its records. The findings were startling:

One was an accountant who worked in a factory where the polyvinyl chloride powder was used.

One was a worker who coated electrical wires with the powder.

Two were people who just lived in the vicinity of plants where the polyvinyl chloride powder was used.

Two others had no known connection with vinyl chloride — at least no more than the rest of us.

Toward the end of 1974, Helen began to notice that her husband was changing profoundly. There were times when he would begin to cry uncontrollably … and Helen realized immediately what was happening. Jesus was coming into Charlie’s life. It had happened to her three years before, when her father had died. She had gone through a period of emptiness and pain and then the knowledge of Jesus had filled her with joy and love. “It’s like somebody high on drugs, only you’re high on Jesus,” she would say. “And all you want to do is talk about Him.” She had been a Catholic but was reborn as an evangelical Christian, and now Charlie was going through the same process. They read the Bible together, and by February it was official. Charlie was baptized at the local Christian Assembly of God.

Around the same time, Helen developed a stomachache. She thought maybe they were eating the wrong things. Then she lost the stomachache and Charlie got it — maybe it was a virus. But Charlie couldn’t shake it. He had pain all the time, stomach pain. He also had a lot of gas. Weeks passed and the pain continued and Helen began to worry. She made doctor appointments for Charlie but he would cancel them. Finally Helen refused to budge: she wasn’t canceling the appointment. If he didn’t go to the doctor, they would have to pay for the appointment anyway, so he might as well go.

The doctor ran a series of tests on Charlie. He checked all the normal things, checked his gastrointestinal tract, everything seemed okay. The last test was a liver scan and the doctor seemed to think there was something definitely wrong. He told Charlie he would have to enter the hospital and have a biopsy done. They would have to cut Charlie open and take a sample of his liver tissue to see what was wrong with it. In mid-March, Charlie entered Lorain Community Hospital and the biopsy was performed. The tissue sample was sent to the Bethesda (Maryland) Naval Hospital.

On March 20th, a brief notice was posted on the bulletin boards at the B.F. Goodrich plant in Avon Lake:

“It is with regret that I inform you that one of our employees has been diagnosed as having angiosarcoma of the liver. The employee is still hospitalized. He has 21 years of plant service, of which the first 13 were in PVC operations and the last eight in Estol, plasticizer and Carboset operations.

R.N. Rylands,
Plant Manager.”

R.N. Rylands hadn’t even bothered to mention Charlie’s name but everyone knew who he was talking about.

As the death toll mounted around the country, more scientific studies were undertaken. Teams of scientists began studying the workers at vinyl chloride factories, checking old records, tracing former employees, finding out how they died. At least three studies were completed by the spring of 1975 — all had similar findings. In addition to angiosarcoma, vinyl chloride workers seemed to be coming down with other forms of cancer as well.

Brain cancer, for example. Lymphatic and lung cancer, as well. The numbers of people involved weren’t large enough to prove anything definitely — unlike angiosarcoma, these other cancers could have been caused by any number of things. There was no smoking pistol.

And there was a fourth study.

This one was done by Dr. Peter Infante of the Ohio Department of Public Health (he has since moved to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health). Infante noticed a curious thing about birth defect statistics in the area along the southern shore of Lake Erie. He noticed that three communities had a significantly higher than average rate of birth defects. The communities were Ashtabula, Painesville and Avon Lake. All three had polyvinyl chloride factories.

Checking closer, Infante found the abnormalities especially involved the central nervous system. There was also a significantly higher rate of brain tumors among adults in those communities.

There was not enough evidence to determine whether the birth defects primarily occurred in the children of vinyl chloride workers or in the general population. There wasn’t enough evidence to say for sure that exposure to vinyl chloride had caused the higher rate of birth defects. There was no smoking pistol.

The coincidence was a little too much for Charlie Arthur to comprehend: one month he is reborn as a Christian, the next month he is stricken with a fatal cancer. He sat in the backyard thinking, thinking. It was obvious God was using him for a purpose, but what purpose? Charlie prayed the purpose was a miracle, that God had selected him as a sign to the others. It played on his mind continually. He would ask Helen: “Why me? Why, of all the guys who work there, is it me?”

He asked the minister at the church. “Well Chuck, I don’t know,” the minister told him. “No one knows. Nobody really knows until we get to heaven.”

So the family prayed even harder, and they got all their friends to pray, and they wrote to Oral Roberts and other famous ministers and asked them to pray too. At the same time, they dived ever more deeply into the life of the church. Charlie joined the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship and the Christian Businessmen’s Fellowship. He and Helen joined a prayer group that met one night each week. They went to church twice on Sunday and afterward they would go to the local old age home to cheer up the people there with baskets of fruit and conversation.

In April Charlie began a series of chemotherapy treatments designed to arrest the growth of the tumor that was devouring his liver. Chemotherapy involves drugs that slow down the growth of rapidly dividing cells, like the cells in a cancerous tumor. The advantage is that it can prolong a cancer patient’s life. The disadvantage is that there are other rapidly growing cells in a person’s body, aside from tumor cells — hair cells, cells that line the intestinal walls. Soon Charlie’s hair fell out. He was nauseous all the time and began losing weight rapidly. Sometimes, he told friends, he was so dizzy he didn’t even know his name.

After three months of this, Helen called the doctor to find out what was happening. The doctor told her that Charlie was still dying of cancer, only more slowly. She had her married daughter Denise call the doctor again and find out how much time Charlie had left. Maybe six months with chemotherapy. Maybe three months without. Helen decided to call a family meeting to decide what to do about it. The family gathered and prayed and talked it over. “The kids said, ‘Mom, he’s nothing but a vegetable, he’s so sick,’ ” Helen later recalled. ” ‘If we believe that God is going to work a miracle in his life, then let’s just put it in God’s hands because Dad is in such agony.’

“We decided to tell Chuck and, of course, he already knew his chances. But we told him and he decided to stop chemotherapy because it was really making him sick.”

A funny thing happened after that: Charlie began to feel much better. He even began to eat a little. Pretty soon, he decided to go back to work at Goodrich.

The chemical industry had been badly stung by all the vinyl chloride disclosures. In the months after the angiosarcoma deaths were announced, the U.S. Department of Labor moved to set a lower standard of exposure for vinyl chloride workers. Immediately, 50 ppm was set as an emergency standard and hearings were announced on a proposed new permanent standard: 1 ppm.

The hearings turned out to be quite acrimonious. The chemical manufacturers said they could never meet the new standard. They threatened that the whole industry would be forced to close down, which would have a ripple effect on other industries using polyvinyl chloride. As many as 2 million jobs could be lost. The government held fast, though, and the only thing the chemical manufacturers accomplished was to further tarnish their already soiled public image.

And, it seemed, the industry’s problems with the government were just beginning. The Food and Drug Administration was considering tough new standards for polyvinyl chloride packaging — a total ban seemed a distinct possibility. (A partial ban was proposed in August 1975 but no final action has been taken.) The Environmental Protection Agency was considering standards for the amounts of vinyl chloride emitted into the air from their factories (and is still considering them).

The manufacturers decided that something had to be done to improve their image. What was needed was a new public-spirited approach. They would bend a little. They would be reasonable. And they found exactly the man who could calmly explain their new approach to the government and the public: William D. Ruckelshaus.

Mr. Ruckelshaus, you may recall, was a national hero. As deputy attorney general, he had been a victim of Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre. Along with his boss, Elliot Richardson, Ruckelshaus refused to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Before becoming a public martyr, Ruckelshaus had served President Nixon as the temporary chief of the FBI. Before that, he had headed the Environmental Protection Agency. He had been Mr. Environment, setting down tough standards for industrial polluters.

Now, though, he was in private law practice. His services were available. And so the Society of the Plastics Industry purchased Mr. Environment. There were several small newspaper stories that recorded the transaction but not many people in Washington were surprised. In fact, it was business as usual: former government officials routinely sell their services to the highest bidder. It is the way things work.

By the summer of 1975, there was good news and bad news at the Goodrich factory in Avon Lake. The good news was that the company seemed to have made an effort to lessen the dangers to workers. It had developed new systems so the poly cleaners didn’t have to go into the vats as often. It had developed complex monitoring systems, complete with computerized gadgets that took constant readings of the vinyl chloride levels in the plant, and flashing lights and alarms that warned the workers when the levels went too high.

The bad news was that there was some evidence that the company didn’t pay much attention to its monitoring systems. One worker named Harry kept a notebook during the summer. “It was more or less on my personal things,” he said. “Like, ‘today my back is hurting’ or ‘my left hip is hurting.’ Then I’d say things like, ‘today the vinyl chloride count on the third floor was 87 ppm.’

“One day I wrote down that the count was over 100 and the red light wasn’t on. In other words, the supervisor had pulled the plug because they wanted everybody in that building to work.”

The supervisor had pulled the plug?

“Yeah. They’ll mess it up. They’ll pull the plug. They have one or two specialists in instrumentation, the other guys can’t handle the machines that register the counts. The reason why they got these one or two guys is they got them by the neck and they’ll even set the machines down where it won’t register. You know damn well — even though I can’t prove it — because you’re right there and you can smell the stuff.”

Harry said he had complained about conditions. “One supervisor tells me: ‘Sometimes it ain’t safe but that’s our bread and butter and we have to do it.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but you’re getting more bread and butter than I am.’ “

Other workers said that when government inspectors had come around, the company shut down most of the vinyl chloride lines, claiming there was maintenance work being done on them.

In a November interview, a company spokesman denied all the charges. In early summer, the guys in the factory began taking up a collection for Charlie Arthur. Everybody contributed five dollars so Charlie could take a trip before he died or do whatever else he wanted with the money. This may not have seemed much but it was the first time in the history of the factory that the workers had organized and done something together. For ten years various unions had tried to penetrate the place — there had been four union elections and all of them failed. Workers in other polyvinyl chloride plants had been organized by a variety of unions but the people at Goodrich in Avon Lake seemed satisfied with the way the company was taking care of them.

Not that a union would have made all that much difference environmentally: several unions (most notably the United Rubber Workers and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers) had been fighting for safer conditions but ultimately occupational health took a back seat to job security. When Uniroyal threatened to close its vinyl chloride plant in Painesville, the workers turned against their union — the United Rubber Workers — because it had pushed so hard for tougher safety standards.

As innocuous as the collection for Charlie Arthur was, it caused some concern among the management at Avon Lake. When a delegation of workers went in and asked if they could begin a collection, they said Industrial Relations officer Ron Cross told them he wasn’t sure. It would start a precedent. They would have to collect money every time someone died.

The workers went ahead anyway and eventually most of the management contributed too. But that wasn’t enough for some of the workers. One of them went into the plant manager’s office and asked if the company would be willing to contribute. And Bob Rylands, the plant manager told him, “The company can’t give money because we don’t want to start another Watergate.”

For his part, Charlie didn’t want to take the money. He was feeling pretty good at that point. “I’m gonna be around for a long time,” he told his friend Bud, who had organized the collection.

“The guys want you to have it,” Bud told him, and eventually he took it.

Charlie’s return to the factory was having a rather sobering effect on his fellow workers. He looked awful. He still didn’t have any hair. He had been a big, chunky man but now he was skinny as a rail. He had swaggered before but now his shoulders were hunched over and he walked uncertainly.

He would try to joke about his condition. He would joke about the fact that he didn’t have to shave because of the chemotherapy. He told one guy, “I was supposed to be dead last week but I’m still living.” And he said that Helen had kicked him out of the house and forced him back to work, saying, “You ain’t gonna lay around here and die.”

But it was forced joviality and often his friends would find Charlie staring off into space, or just sitting in front of his locker alone and crying. And they saw he was wasting away. And they began to wonder who would be next.

They talked about finding work elsewhere but jobs were scarce. Bud talked about landscape gardening. Harry joked about becoming a thief. The more they talked, the more they realized they were trapped. Arnie, one of the guys who had pushed hard for the union, said, “A lot of guys want to get ten years in and go someplace else. I used to talk about going to Oregon. But I didn’t go and neither does anyone else because there are all sorts of strings you have attached to you — mortgages and kids going to school, a hundred things. You kind of get trapped here.”

William Ruckelshaus sat in his posh law office, just a few blocks from the White House, and pondered his decision to represent the plastics people. He was a large man, rather owlishly bureaucratic, who spoke with a down-home Indiana twang. He was very smooth.

He said his first reaction was to say no when the plastics people had approached him. But then he thought about it and realized he was only saying no because “certain kinds of people” would be angry if he did it, and so he changed his mind. It was a challenge, really. To make the industry as responsible as possible and come up with a reasonable set of standards. The industry would have to hand over all its technical data to the government. The industry would have to volunteer to become part of a research effort with labor unions and independent scientists.

But there were problems. People just didn’t trust the industry — it was part of the general atmosphere in the society, a general crisis of trust. He worried about this. He said if people didn’t start trusting each other again, there would be a serious turn toward “anarchy or authoritarianism, most likely authoritarianism.” He seemed to define authoritarianism as too many government inspectors in vinyl chloride plants.

Part of the new atmosphere of trust would involve the government stepping back from the regulatory process and leaving it up to management and labor to decide what sort of standards should be set in a given factory.

But wouldn’t labor tend to buckle under to management, to worry more about jobs than the long-range problem of health?

He said that if you talked to most workers and told them that they had two alternatives — either lose their jobs or run the risk of getting cancer in 15 years — most would say that working on the job would be a socially acceptable risk. Now the government had the responsibility of minimizing the risk as much as possible, but still, the ultimate decision had to rest with the individual worker. “I mean,” he said, “why not try stopping Evel Knievel from jumping across the canyon on his rocket? His risk was much greater than most vinyl chloride workers’.”

He said he was disappointed in the level of debate on this subject. Many politicians will play it up and say there is no such thing as a socially acceptable risk when it comes to health. “But of course there is socially acceptable risk,” said Ruckelshaus. “Every time you get into your car, you are taking a socially acceptable risk.”

As to the question of whether it was morally right for William Ruckelshaus to represent the plastics people before the agency he used to head, the Environmental Protection Agency, he said, “There are those who would prohibit a former official from representing a client before his former agency. I would hope that former experience would not preclude the practice of law in an area where one has expertise. As a personal matter, I have no problem with the question of undue influence. My only contact with my former colleagues is through regular, official channels.”

Charlie and Helen took the money the guys had raised and in August went to Disney World in Florida with their youngest daughter, Valerie. “We had a real nice time,” Helen remembers, “although Chuck felt kind of funny. He was so thin. We bought him a bathing suit but he only wore it down to the motel pool one day — I guess he felt funny in it. After that, he would come down to the pool wearing his pants.”

In September Charlie continued to try to go to work, but it was getting harder. He was growing weaker, he had pain in his back. Helen thought the pain might have been the result of Charlie walking around hunched over; later she realized that it was probably caused by his liver tumor swelling and pressing against his other organs. Still, he didn’t complain much. Helen could never really be sure how much pain he was in. In early October, he quit work. He just couldn’t make it anymore. The back pain was worse and he decided to go to the Cleveland Clinic to see if they could give him some medication for it.

On Monday, October 13th, Charlie drove himself into Cleveland and entered the clinic. Helen had offered to drive him but he said no because she would have to drive home alone through some bad neighborhoods in the city.

On October 14th, Charlie called Helen and sounded fine.

On October 16th, Helen called Charlie and he sounded completely out of it, very woozy. She was worried. She told him to call back when his head cleared. He didn’t call back.

On October 17th, Helen and her daughter Denise went into Cleveland to see what was going on. Charlie looked horrible — it seemed like he had lost ten pounds in five days. He was heavily drugged. The guy in the next bed said, “If I was you, I’d get him out of here.” Helen and Denise put him in the car and took him home.

On October 18th, all Charlie wanted was a pain pill. “He kept asking for a pain pill, a pain pill, a pain pill,” Helen remembers. “He was going through withdrawal. So I’d yell at him, ‘Chuck, really, you don’t need it.’ For about one and a half days he was like that, and then he didn’t need the pills no more.” Helen nursed him through the weekend, feeding him milkshakes

On October 20th, she noticed that Charlie had stopped urinating and had stopped eating. She called the doctor and was told to get him to the hospital right away.

On October 21st, he entered Elyria Memorial Hospital.

On October 22nd, Bud went to visit his old friend. “I was shocked,” Bud recalled. “He didn’t even recognize me at first. He couldn’t have weighed more than 70 pounds and Charlie used to be a pretty big guy — and he had turned yellow.”

On October 24th in Los Angeles, Dr. Joseph Wagoner of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, testified before a state senate committee about the dangers of vinyl chloride. He repeated the litany of horrors that had become known in the past year (Wagoner was aware of one additional horror that had yet to be announced: a second study by Dr. Infante, this one showing that wives of vinyl chloride workers in a Pennsylvania factory had twice the average rate of fetal deaths — miscarriages and stillbirths.)

According to newspaper reports, Wagoner supported a ban on the use of vinyl chloride (and other cancer-causing chemicals) by manufacturers, except by license, which would be granted only if there was no substitute material and if safety precautions were taken.

On October 27th, Charlie was feeling a bit better. He received some old friends, joked about their gaining weight and his losing it, then prayed with them. Outside the hospital room, Helen received reporters from the local newspaper. “He has no bitterness at all,” she told them. “He never had bitterness in his heart. In fact, if he comes through this, he says he’ll go back to work at Goodrich.

“God gave him to us and if He feels He wants to take Chuck home, He can,” she said. “God loves him more than we ever could and we love him so much.”

On October 28th, another announcement appeared on the bulletin board at Goodrich in Avon Lake. This one blasted Dr. Wagoner for his statements in Los Angeles. The company believed it “unfortunate” that Wagoner would make statements about birth defects “that are questionable and alarmist.” The notice was signed: R. N. Rylands, Plant Manager.

On October 29th, the Wall Street Journal reported that nine cases of angiosarcoma had been discovered at a Goodrich polyvinyl chloride plant in Quebec. All nine workers were long dead but the company had chosen not to make an official announcement.

On October 30th, Charlie’s condition worsened. The doctor said he could receive no more visitors. Bud was his last visitor from outside the family and he said, “It seemed like Charlie was fighting for every breath he took.”

On November 1st, Charlie lapsed into a coma.

On November 2nd, in the evening, he died.

The men stood in the rear of the room, nervously. They almost seemed frightened to sit down. They stared at the walls, shot nervous glances at each other, looked up toward the front of the room where Charlie lay in the coffin, a mere whisper of a corpse. To the left of Charlie’s head there was an opened Bible. To the right, a folded flag. All around there were flowers. They seemed artificial, waxen, like Charlie’s face. In the background, an organ played somber chords.

Helen sat in front with the children, shaken but composed. The night before she had performed the herculean task of receiving condolences — from friends, from fellow workers, from company officials. She sat to the right of the coffin then, as the line of well-wishers filtered past. Her eyes were red but there was an ethereal dignity about her.

Two ministers spoke at the funeral, an old one and a young one. Both said the same thing: Charlie was happier now. They did not talk of vinyl chloride or of Goodrich. They said that while it might be difficult to understand why God had chosen to take Charlie so young, it was His will and He knew what was best. They said that Charlie had been prepared, that he hadn’t been afraid, that at one point in his last days he had reached out his arms to the heavens, as if to say, “Take me. I’m ready.”

After that, a long funeral procession formed and moved through the streets of Elyria. It was a beautiful autumn afternoon with golden leaves falling from the trees and children going home from school. The procession moved across town to a quiet cemetery where the pallbearers carried the coffin, now flag draped, to the grave site. There was an open tent and a row of folding chairs for the family. The young minister said a few more words here.

He said that what had happened to Charlie was similar to something that had happened to all of us when we were children. Remember, he said, when you were young and you spent a long day visiting friends with your parents. Sometimes you would fall asleep in the car and wake up the next morning safe and comfortable in your own bed, but sort of wondering how you got there. That is what happened to Charlie. He was safe at home now.

Two of the pallbearers took the flag from the coffin and folded it solemnly. They handed it to Helen, who looked at it and then emitted a long, low wail that grew in strength and intensity until it seemed to engulf the entire cemetery.

She had not thought about it often when he was still alive, but she had figured that if God chose to take her husband, she would devote the rest of her life to helping others. She would do volunteer work in hospitals. She expected that the company would take care of her financial needs, that it would probably give her Charlie’s paycheck as if he were still working.

But the morning after the funeral a delegation from Goodrich came over to the house to explain to Helen what she would be getting. In effect, they explained, she would be getting the same as any other widow of an occupational death. She would get $119 each week from the state workman’s compensation board. She would get some money from Social Security, but only for two years until her youngest daughter turned 18. She would receive hospitalization benefits for the rest of her life. There would be some insurance money coming but they were unsure exactly how much — certainly some life insurance and perhaps some for accidental death, depending on whether the insurance company considered Charlie’s death job-related. (Although Goodrich said it considered the death job related, it still wouldn’t admit that vinyl chloride caused angiosarcoma, but only that there was a “relationship” between the two.)

There was one other benefit. A gift from the company for 21 years of faithful service. A death gratuity, they called it. Four weeks’ pay.

Helen was stunned and disappointed. The money wouldn’t be nearly enough to live on. She would have to go to work. Friends suggested the possibility of taking legal action against the company, and for several days she considered it. Finally, she decided not to.

“A Christian,” she said, “does not sue.”

In This Article: cancer, Coverwall, Labor unions


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