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Exposure to Toxins at Electronic Recycling Plant Blamed for Health Problems

The Panama City personal injury attorney at The Pittman Firm represents injured people in our community, including those harmed by dangerous chemicals in Panama City and throughout Bay County.

This week, The News Herald is reporting on a lawsuit brought by current and former employees and their family members who claim to have suffered health problems as a result of exposure to toxins from the electronic waste recycling facility at the Marianna Federal Corrections Institution. More than 160 people have joined the suit against the federal prison agency, citing ailments such as joint pain, sores, memory loss, internal bleedings, trouble breathing and problems in the thyroid and reproductive systems. The complaint asserts that toxins including beryllium, lead, and cadmium were in the air and settled as pollen-like dust on the victims' clothing. Complainants note that they were not given any protective apparel to help reduce exposure.

In 1994, the Federal Bureau of Prisons started using low-paid inmate labor to assist in recycling computers and other electronic equipment, including helping to extract gold and other useful material from the waste. The program that began at Marianna, a facility 60 miles west of Tallahassee, expanded three years later to include facilities in seven other states. Work duties included, at one point, using hammers to break television picture tubes and glass computer screens that contained toxic materials.

Last month, two lawsuits were filed in the U.S. District Court at Panama City. Allegations against the Bureau and UNICOR – the operating name for the Federal Prison Industries – included claims that they operated the facility in a manner that willfully, negligently, and/or recklessly exposed plaintiffs to toxins. One former corrections officer who now battles pulmonary disease, internal bleeding, and several other health issues notes that workers would look like coal miners after a day at the plant with dust in their nostrils and all over their clothing. By midweek, the bureau had not yet filed a response.

The litigation does, however, come after the government rejected administrative claims on behalf of current and former workers and their family members. In part, bureau officials suggested the claims by past and present employees should fall under workers compensation. Current and former inmates who claim to suffer illness due to the plant are not part of the current lawsuits because there is a complex process imposed by federal law for such claims.

Two prior attempts at legal action failed to resolve the plaintiffs' complaints. In 2009, a federal judge dismissed a suit on behalf of employees and inmates who sought an injunction, a declaratory judgment, and the release of files on the risks of recycling e-waste. A second lawsuit seeking to declare the plant a nuisance pursuant to Florida environmental law was also dismissed, with the state court saying it could not use state law to shut down a federal facility.

An investigative report issued in October 2010 by the Department of Justice's Office of Inspector General found that e-waste programs in prisons failed to protect the safety of both staff and inmate workers, but also noted that other agencies found exposure levels for lead and cadmium fell within legal limits.

Work should not be hazardous to one's health. As a Panama City injury law firm, we are available to help individuals harmed by chemical exposure in Panama City and throughout the Northern Florida region.


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