More than 100 workers who say they have lost some or all of their senses of taste and smell have sued the Hooker Chemical Corp., where they worked, for tens of millions of dollars.
The men, all of whom were exposed to chlorine and related gases over a period of months, say they are suffering from a variety of maladies ranging from disabling fatigue to a loss of memory and an inability to function sexually.
Dr. Robert Henkin of Georgetown University Hospital, widely regarded as America's leading authority on the physiology of taste and smell and a consultant for Hooker in the actions, has examined about 80 of the plaintiffs. He has found that more than 40 have reduced or total loss of taste and smell, probably caused by inhalation of chemicals manufactured by Hooker, according to a source familiar with Henkin's work and the lawsuits.
Seventeen cases were settled out of court this week for a total of $95,000. This brings to 140 the number of workers at Hooker who have settled out of court for a total of slightly less than $400,000. The largest amount received by a plaintiff has been $13,000.
Five men, all represented by Louis Koerner of New Orleans, are pressing their suits for $1.5 million each in damages.
Hooker also has been named as a defendant in six actions relating to the manufacture of Kepone because it supplied some ingredients for the highly toxic pesticide that injured workers who produced it and contaminated the James River in Virginia, into which it was dumped.
The Hooker suit, which began as a $450 million class action when it was originally filed in December, 1974, is one of two massive sets of litigation in the New Orleans District Court that involve allegations of chemical poisoning leading in some cases to total disability.
The other was filed in August, 1974, by 13 men who drove trailer trucks containing the deadly poison carbon monoxide for the Liquid Carbonic Corp. They contend that they were regularly gassed because of defective and inadequately maintained equipment and as a result are suffering from symptoms ranging from severe headaches and nausea to extreme weakness leading to permanent disability.
Their claims against Liquid Carbonic and a group of other defendants total $32.5 million. To date there have been no settlements.
The two cases dramatize a number of serious problems surrounding the handling of hazardous materials in plants and on the road, which include the unscheduled emission of poisonous and flammable gasses on highways and in parking lots.
According to Quentin Banks, director of the compliance branch of the Office of Hazardous Materials, Operations of the Department of Transportation, his office "is not big enough to insure compliance on a continuing basis" with regulations governing emissions of potentially dangerous substances into the air, even in populated areas.
There are four officers in Banks' office, and he said they frequently call on regional Federal Highway Administration personnel for aid. The highway administration has one man in Louisiana assigned to this type of work.
Since the chronic effects of long-term exposure to carbon monoxide and some chlorine-related gasses are not well understood, the suits promises to open new volumes in the literature of industrial and environmental medicine.
Dr. James B. Lucas, caled in to investigate the Liquid Carbonic Corp. case while serving with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, said the exposure the drivers had "was really very unique."
Liquid Carbonic was aware of the potential problem before the driver files suit. An internal corporate memo dated April 14, 1974, and marked "personal and confidential" from regional manager W. C. Witte to vice president W. H. Crescenti said:
"Should there be an accident or fatality involving personnel exposed to carbon monoxide for prolonged periods, I am sure that some sort of legal action would be filed by the family. The bases (sic) for the legal action would probably be the prolonged exposure and the failure on the part of the company to recognize the problem and take appropriate safety precauions."
Another Liquid Carbonic internal memo, dated Aug. 1, 1974, disclosed that the liquid carbon monoxide trailers "have been losing roughly 10 per cent of our CO on long deliveries."
During that period, a review of Transportation Department files reveals, Liquid Carbonic was consistently reporting no loss of CO or negligible loss. Carriers of toxic and flammable gasses are required by law to report all losses of gas into the atmosphere.
Liquid Carbonic officials refused to comment on the case but Edward J. Rice Jr., an attorney for the company, said that the successful defense presented in a state workman's compensation case brought by nine of the 13 plaintiffs was essentially the same as his planned defense in the upcoming federal suit.
Judge Charles L. Rivet ruled in that case that the plaintiffs had not proved that their symptoms were caused by exposure to carbon monoxide.
Hooker officials and their attorneys refused to comment on the litigation.
A trial date of Aug. 29 has been set in the Liquid Carbonic case. Other defendants in that litigation include Liquid Carbonic customers such as Union Carbide Corp., Reynolds Metals, Olin Corp. and Stauffer Chemicals.
The complainants in the suits say that much of the exposure to carbon monoxide occurred as the drivers were unloading the liquefied gas into tanks at the customers' facilities in various parts of the country.
Alvin Frierson Jr., 36, a father of four whose wife is totally disable as the result of an automobile accident, is seeking a $2.5 million settlement. He said that from the time he began hauling carbon monoxide he "lived with headache constantly. It was something out of the ordinary when I didn't have a headache."
He said he suffered nausea or diarrhea every couple of months and that there was "one period of 48 hours that is lost." He said he went to sleep in Lake Charles, La., and his co-driver couldn't wake him up.
"He drove to New Orleans and back and he still couldn't wake me," Frierson said. "When I finally woke up I was in the truck with him on the way to West Virginia."
Frierson says he has accumulated thousands of dollars in debts because he is able to do practically no physical work without becoming exhausted almost immediately.
"Mentally I can't hack it anymore," he said. "My kids have to suffer. I can't provide them with the things other kids have. I've gotten to the point where I couldn't care less about the lawsuit. I'd more than gladly give somebody this damn lawsuit if they'd give me their health."
Donald D. Millet, 45, a carpenter who was working on an addition to Hooker's caustic chlorine facility at Taft, La., described one acute episode of exposire: "A valve on a pipe popped loose. I knew it was chlorine. It's a beautiful green with a yellow rim around it.
"It's like someone taking you by the chest with a big vise. I stated heaving and throwing up. I couldn't get my mask on because I was throwing up. I was exposed to gas for eight to 10 minutes."
Millet said that after he got out of the hospital following the episode "it was like I had flu all the time. I just felt bad."
Millet lighted a cigarette and said it was just from habit because he could neither taste it nor smell the smoke. He said his senses of taste and smell were completely gone and added that his sexual functioning was reduced to nearly zero and that he had difficulty controlling his bowels.
"You're tired all the time," he said. "I need a nap at 9:30 or 10 in the morning after a good night's sleep. I'm not worth a damn anymore. I can't do anything."
Millet, an ex-Marine, has been declared totally disabled by the Veteran's Administration.
Many of the men in both cases are running short of money, which is why, according to Koerner, some have settled for relatively small amounts.