BY GIL SMART, STAFF WRITER
Sandra Cooper remembers the exact date her life started to turn upside down: Sept. 25, 2003.
She’d gotten home from her job as an art teacher at Garden Spot High School around 4 p.m. that day. Her husband, Gene, who was on shift work at Armstrong World Industries floor plant, arrived home a short time later.
She heard him coming.
“I could hear the coughing even before he came up the sidewalk,” Sandra Cooper said. “I’ve never heard anybody cough like that.”
His eyes were watering, he had a blinding headache and he was screaming in between hacks. There’d been a spill at work, he told his wife. Chemicals. He had to help clean it up.
The cough lasted for days. Finally, more than a week later, Gene Cooper agreed to go to the doctor, who prescribed antibiotics. Still, the cough persisted, but Sandra Cooper didn’t think too much of it; her husband had always had sinus problems.
But by Thanksgiving, Gene Cooper’s behavior had noticeably changed. He’d forget names, he started missing work — something he’d never done before. When the plant closed between Christmas and New Year’s, he argued with Sandy, insisting he was scheduled to work. When she got out the calendar to prove her point, he began to cry. Something was wrong.
Within five months, Gene Cooper was on disability, unable to work. Today, he’s in a Dallastown nursing home, his brain ravaged by toxic encephalopathy, a degenerative neurological disorder resembling Parkinson’s disease. His wife believes the chemical spill that day in September 2003 is a cause.
So she turned to the legal system, battling Armstrong over workers’ compensation for her husband’s injuries, and filing a lawsuit against the manufacturers of the chemicals involved in the spill — though not Armstrong itself — in 2010.
Then, two months ago, she filed suit against Armstrong, claiming the company withheld information about the chemicals her husband had been exposed to — information, she believes, that could have slowed his brain damage.
She’s not the only one to claim in court that a loved one was harmed by exposure to dangerous chemicals at the floor plant. In early September, a Columbia man whose father worked at the plant and died of bladder cancer at age 56 filed a lawsuit, claiming exposure to the chemical solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, caused the cancer. That suit, like Cooper’s 2010 filing, names the chemical manufacturers as defendants, but not Armstrong.
More lawsuits could be on the way. Aaron J. Freiwald, the Philadelphia attorney who represents both Cooper and the Columbia man said, “I fully expect there are other workers who have been seriously affected by the widespread chemical exposures at Armstrong. We are currently investigating other claims.”
For Sandra Cooper, the past decade has been grueling. Medical and legal bills have added up to some $600,000. But, she says, the lawsuits aren’t about the money.
“I will do whatever I can to find justice for my family and all the workers injured by these chemicals,” she said.
Sandra Cooper’s civil lawsuits grew out of a workers’ compensation case she filed in 2007, after a doctor in her husband’s nursing home suggested he might be suffering from a work-related injury.
Armstrong fought the claim, and it dragged on for five years before a workers’ compensation judge upheld the claim in June 2012, and ordered Armstrong to pay lost wages and medical benefits going forward. Sandra Cooper says she believes hers to be first successful chemical injury claim against Armstrong. The company has appealed the decision.
Jennifer Johnson, Armstrong’s senior manager of Global Corporate Communications and Public Affairs, declined to comment in detail on the claims.
“We certainly do not like to receive claims of this nature, and we’re sensitive to allegations involving serious health conditions,” she said. “The matter is in litigation, however, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the case itself, other than to say that we believe the allegations against the company are without merit.”
Gene Cooper got his first job at Armstrong in 1974, at a time the company was still the biggest employer in Lancaster County. Since then it has downsized dramatically. The old floor plant is gone, demolished to make way for new medical offices and athletic fields. Armstrong was in and out of bankruptcy due to asbestos liability; just last week, officials announced plans to invest $41 million in its current floor plant, to make luxury vinyl tile.
In its heyday, the company churned out a huge variety of products at its Liberty Street plant. Integral to that process were solvents — sweet-smelling chemicals used as degreasers or in coatings. Some were relatively harmless; one former Armstrong worker interviewed for this story recalled employees using methyl ethyl ketone to wash their hands.
Other solvents were more problematic – like TCE.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, TCE is associated with several types of cancer in humans, especially kidney, liver, cervix and the lymphatic system. Several researchers have recently linked TCE to Parkinson’s disease and neurotoxicity.
TCE is one of the most common groundwater contaminants at former industrial sites, found at more than half of all “Superfund” sites. It was TCE that contaminated the groundwater at Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base in North Carolina, causing an unknown number of cancers and other ailments. Local newspaper reports show it was detected in the groundwater and soil at the old floor plant site in Lancaster.
“Armstrong used large quantities of TCE and solvent mixtures containing TCE,” attorney Freiwald said. “It worked very well as a degreaser, but that came at a very heavy price paid by Armstrong’s workers and their families.”
Freiwald has been involved in other TCE litigation around the country, including a landmark case in McCollom Lake, Ill., where 31 cases of brain cancer turned up in a community of 1,000 people. Victims blame a chemical plant a mile away.
In September, Freiwald filed suit in Philadelphia County on behalf of Christopher K. Landis, of Columbia, whose father, Delmar, died in 2011 at age 56 after working 35 years at Armstrong, where he was a millwright. The case names six chemical manufacturers of TCE as defendants — Dow Chemical Co., Mallinckrodt Baker Inc., (which has changed its name to Avantor), Brenntag Northeast Inc., PPG Industries Inc., Occidental Petroleum Corp. and Occidental Chemical Corp. Armstrong is not named as a defendant.
“TCE was used so widely and so extensively” at Armstrong, the complaint asserts, “that TCE’s distinctive odor was routinely detectable in the breathing space of workers, including Mr. Landis, which means that exposure levels were at least at the odor threshold for TCE.”
“Exposure to TCE can cause catastrophic injuries even at levels well below the chemical’s odor threshold,” the complaint states. “Therefore, TCE was clearly unsafe and unreasonably dangerous for use at AWI (Armstrong World Industries) where Mr. Landis was routinely exposed over a very significant period of time.”
The complaint accuses the defendants of liability, negligence and recklessness.
Through Freiwald, Christopher Landis declined comment.
The Landis case echoes Sandra Cooper’s 2010 complaint, though her suit did not name PPG or the Occidental companies as defendants. In it, she asserted that her husband, too, was harmed by long-term exposure to TCE and other chemicals, resulting in brain damage.
Her case, filed in Philadelphia County, was initially dismissed after the defendants successfully argued that the statute of limitations for filing a claim had expired. But earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed that decision and remanded it back to the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas.
Howard Klein, an attorney representing Dow, said the firm “will vigorously defend” both the Cooper and Landis lawsuits. Of the Landis case, he said, “reliable medical and scientific literature does not establish link between TCE and bladder cancer … we deny that our products contributed in any way to Mr. Landis’ illnesses and death.”
Attorneys for Avantor, Brenntag Northeast and the Occidental companies declined to comment. Officials with PPG Industries did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
During the workers’ compensation trial, Sandra Cooper said she’d noticed slight cognitive changes in her husband before Sept. 25, 2003, but they were minor. He was more irritable than usual; she didn’t think much of it.
Then came the spill.
Gene was working in the floor plant’s rotogravure department when an employee forgot to close a valve on a tank containing “top foam,” a mixture used to coat flooring that contained arsenic and solvents. Up to 700 gallons spilled, with some of the mix spilling into a subbasement. Workers in the vicinity — including Gene Cooper — rushed to clean it up, without ventilation or protective gear, according to testimony in his workers’ compensation case.
In the weeks and months after the incident, she said at the workers’ compensation trial, his behavior got “bizarre.” He’d mix up genders — calling his daughter “he,” for example. He became agitated and paranoid, thinking certain people were in the house, that the neighbors were up to something nefarious.
It looked like dementia, but it was coming on like a freight train, she said. And she didn’t know why.
He saw neurologists, neuropsychologists, a toxicologist and a psychiatrist, she said. They ruled out stroke, viral infections of the brain or cardiac events. By 2006, he went into a nursing home. It was there, a year later, where a doctor who had observed his behavior, movement and demeanor indicated that his problems could be work-related.
Sandra Cooper hired a lawyer and filed the workers’ compensation case. She also paid $20,000 out of pocket to have a sophisticated “functional neuroimaging” test done, measuring specific brain functions. The results “showed damage typical of exposure to organic solvents,” she said.
She still didn’t know exactly what Gene Cooper had been exposed to. And Armstrong, she said, wouldn’t tell her.
As part of the workers’ compensation case, the judge ordered Armstrong to turn over exposure records. According to the civil complaint she filed against Armstrong in August, Armstrong produced a “heavily redacted” version, the redactions “based upon (Armstrong’s) unilateral determination of what was ‘relevant.’ “
Her lawyer complained and the judge ordered the company to turn over the entire file, according to her complaint. Armstrong responded by saying it “had ‘inadvertently shredded’ Mr. Cooper’s exposure history during the demolition of a building,” according to the complaint.
But then, in October 2011, a former Armstrong worker testified at a workers’ comp hearing that he’d accidentally discovered exposure records on a company computer. “Defendant AWI (Armstrong) had access to his exposure history in electronic form in password protected files within Defendant’s computer system,” Cooper’s civil complaint avers.
“Repeatedly and with reckless disregard for Mr. Cooper’s health and well-being, Defendant AWI concealed and withheld specific information, which it had and which it still has, about Mr. Cooper’s specific chemical exposures,” the complaint states.
As a result, the complaint asserts, “Mr. Cooper’s brain damage and movement disorder, remained without a specific diagnose and went untreated until his condition had progressed to its present life-threatening stage.”
The lawsuit alleges fraud, civil conspiracy, recklessness and infliction of emotional distress. Also named as a defendant in that suit is Dr. Alan J. Hay, an occupational physician who saw Gene Cooper in May 2004, shortly before he went on disability. The suit claims Hay should have realized Cooper was suffering from brain damage caused by chemical exposure.
Through a Lancaster General Health spokesman, Hay declined comment.
Ten years after the chemical spill she believes triggered her husband’s decline, Sandra Cooper is still searching for answers. And in her search, she said, she might have ripped the lid off Pandora’s box: “Hundreds of (Armstrong) workers had no idea what they were being exposed to,” she said.
“This really is a David vs. Goliath kind of fight,” she said.
“But after so many years, I’m not going away.”