Health study renews Mattel factory fears

Meetings focus on report linking ex-employees, elevated cancer rates

Federal and state health experts are meeting with former employees of the Beaverton ViewMaster plant today to discuss the implications of a report that discovered elevated cancer rates among a group of past workers who have died since 1995.

It will be the first public meeting to address the environmental health concerns of these workers in the nearly five years since the industrial solvent trichloroethylene was discovered in the factory's water at more than 300 times the allowable level.

Mattel Corp., the $5 billion toy-making giant that was the fifth and final owner of the now-closed factory, organized and ran all the previous meetings for employees with health concerns.

Michael Heumann, an environmental epidemiologist with the Oregon Department of Human Services, said: 'We have not held our own meetings in the past because we did not have anything unique to tell the former employees. Now that we do, we're looking forward to hearing their questions and concerns.'

The department's study found that, compared with the Oregon population, the proportion of deaths among plant workers was twice as great for pancreatic cancer and nearly three times as great for kidney cancer. The study considered the cause of death for 459 former employees who died from 1995 to 2001.

The author of the report, ODHS epidemiologist Michele Freeman, labeled the factory a past public health hazard and concluded that there is 'a pressing need for a more thorough investigation of the impact of this hazard on the local community.'

Jane Haley-Harris, president of the nonprofit Oregon Center for Environmental Health, said the state's preliminary results were not surprising.

'You cannot drink this toxin for years at high levels and not have health impacts,' she said.

Heumann emphasized that while the study did reveal elevated rates of two kinds of cancer, it did not show that the cancer was related to TCE pollution.

Dan Nottage, general manager of Mattel Portland, said the report's findings are far from conclusive. 'This is a preliminary snapshot. It's clear that this warrants more study, and Mattel is certainly supportive of working with the state on future studies.'

As many as 25,000 workers may have been exposed to TCE through their drinking water at the ViewMaster factory, just off Oregon Highway 217 in Beaverton.

For more than 40 years, the factory was the main production site of the popular three-dimensional slide viewer known as the ViewMaster.

The pollution in the plant's water supply came from the use of TCE for degreasing and cleaning machine parts. Large volumes of TCE were dumped on-site, and over time the chemical drained through the ground and into the aquifer below. The pollution migrated into on-site wells that were used for production and drinking water.

Officials from the state Department of Environmental Quality estimate that TCE contaminated drinking water at the plant for more than 20 years. It went undetected because plant managers did not test the water for chemical pollution, although such tests have been required since 1990.

Research has shown that TCE causes liver and kidney cancer in laboratory animals. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has classified TCE as a probable carcinogen.

Mattel did not discover the contamination until March 1998. When it found the tainted water, the company pumped out the water tower and hauled 27,000 gallons of water off-site to be disposed of as hazardous waste.

Mattel since has closed its Beaverton factory and moved its production operation to Tijuana, Mexico.

Mattel looks at Portland ties

Since the pollution was found, 27 former workers have filed workers' compensation claims with the state. All have been rejected. Four lawsuits over the drinking water issue also have failed.

Mattel had decided to sever its final ties to Portland by closing its Portland office and ending free medical screening tests for past workers by the end of 2003.

But Nottage said Mattel now is reconsidering its decision to leave Portland, given the preliminary findings of the health study.

The study was funded through a $100,000 grant from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in Atlanta. Another $100,000 is available this year, but beyond that researchers will need to seek out additional grants.

Heumann said an in-depth epidemiological study would cost millions. Additional information is needed about how long people worked at the plant, where in the plant they worked, how much water they drank at work and other factors, Heumann said.

Amanda Evans, the daughter of a former Mattel employee who died from liver cancer last year, said she welcomed further research. However, she said, 'Health studies cannot relieve the suffering. These proposed health studies will provide health statistics but not health care.'

Federal health researchers from the Atlanta agency will hear from Evans and other former employees and their families at a pair of meetings scheduled for 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. today. The meetings will be held at Elmonica School in Beaverton, 16950 S.W. Lisa St.

It will be the third time since 1998 that federal researchers have traveled to Beaverton from Atlanta to investigate the matter.

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