In Akron, Ohio, exposure to toxins like benzene and asbestos made people sick and cut lives short
By Yanick Rice Lamb
This story is part of a series on Akron’s rubber industry published in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, and was supported in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Read part one and part two here.
Forced to breathe at times through oxygen tubes, the Rev. Kevin Goode nonetheless counts his blessings. Although his lungs are scarred from asbestos exposure and he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, he’s in better condition than other former employees of rubber factories in Akron, Ohio.
Goode, retired pastor of Church of the Harvest, worked fifteen years for the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. For most of that time, he tested the characteristics of competitors’ tires in a lab while other employees built new tires below. He didn’t think much about the asbestos, chemicals and soot inside the building, or the black clouds billowing from smokestacks around the Rubber Capital of the World.
“The stuff was everywhere—in your pores, on your skin,” Goode recalled of the lamp black, also known as carbon black, which added sturdiness and color to the tires but can cause skin conditions, cancer, respiratory problems, and cardiovascular disease. “You take a shower, you blow your nose or if you cough up phlegm, it was always black.”
Goode, sixty-four, started at the factory in 1975, when he was seventeen. “You’re young and you think you’re invincible, but you knew it had an impact,” he said of his exposures. “We just knew something was not healthy about it, but nobody did anything. We were glad to take the paycheck.”
Goode is among thousands of people in the Akron area who have received workers’ compensation benefits, class-action settlements, or payments from personal-injury lawsuits against tire manufacturers, their subsidiaries, and their suppliers. Their ailments range from asbestosis to cancer. Without these lawsuits—along with pressure from labor unions and regulators—the rubber companies would have done little to address health issues, many in Akron say.
“Back in the day, they used to fight us tooth and nail,” said Jack Hefner, immediate past president of Local 2L of the United Steelworkers union, which absorbed the United Rubber Workers. “How many people died early and unnecessarily from benzene and toluene and asbestos and soapstone and lamp black?” asked Hefner, a third-generation union official who spent ten years at General Tire until it closed in 1982, and recently retired from Maxion Wheels USA LLC, formerly the old Goodyear rim plant.
None of the remaining rubber companies contacted for this article would discuss specific details on their industrial hygiene and environmental practices over the years. Among the Big Four, General Tire was sold to Continental, and B.F. Goodrich no longer exists (though tires are still sold under both brand names). Firestone declined to comment, and Goodyear provided a written statement.
“We have policies and procedures in place focused on material handling and the safe use of substances used or stored at our facilities,” Goodyear stated. “Preventing work-related illness in the workplace begins with understanding the potential impacts of noise and the substances used in the manufacturing process. We assess workplace exposures through monitoring, which validates that controls are effective and provides transparency to associates.”
The rubber industry, which began in Akron in the early 1870s, has exposed its workers and neighbors to an array of poisons. But two stand out: asbestos and benzene. The former is a fibrous mineral known for its fire resistance. The latter is a natural constituent of crude oil used as a solvent for decades. Both can do severe damage to the human body.
Goodyear and other rubber companies in Akron began insulating their tire factories with asbestos and using it in manufacturing at least as far back as the early 1900s, sold on the mineral’s malleability and imperviousness to chemicals, heat, electricity, and water. One of their suppliers was the Johns Manville Corporation, the nation’s leading maker of asbestos products for a half-century.
The Summit County Court of Common Pleas in Akron became a hotbed of asbestos litigation, fielding thousands of claims filed against Johns Manville by workers suffering from lung cancer or other asbestos-related diseases—or, because many have died, their heirs. Since 2015, more than two thousand of these cases have been settled, the claimants paid from an $80 million national trust fund established by Travelers, Johns Manville’s largest insurer. But the settlement amounts have been modest—as low as $800 and rarely more than $20,000, said Thomas W. Bevan, an attorney based in Hudson, Ohio. “The shame of it is that the families wait a very long time for a very small amount of money,” said Common Pleas Judge Elinore Marsh Stormer. “You want to see justice being done. And I don’t know that waiting twenty years for $1,200 is justice.”
Johns Manville filed for bankruptcy in 1982 to avoid what it called “tremendous liability” from the rush of lawsuits after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, known as OSHA, began regulating asbestos. Plaintiffs went after the company’s insurers following the Chapter 11 filing; the bankruptcy court approved a multimillion-dollar settlement with Travelers in 1986. Johns Manville emerged from Chapter 11 in 1988, but nearly three decades of litigation continued. Some later plaintiffs not included in the 1986 settlement accused Travelers of misrepresenting Johns Manville’s and its own knowledge of asbestos hazards.
Tied up by appeals, the case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009. The justices remanded the case to an appeals court, which in 2014 reinstated a bankruptcy ruling that Travelers pay settlement agreements and interest totaling $500 million. “This was an extremely unusual case,” said Bevan, who cut his legal teeth as an asbestos litigation law clerk in 1989, assisting a mentor with lawsuits against rubber companies he says no one wanted to take because of their difficulty.
In his first case out of law school in the early 1990s, he represented a Goodyear employee with lung cancer who had been exposed to asbestos. “The initial stance was complete and total denial, like this was some type of a hoax or scam,” he said of Goodyear. A company lawyer, Bevan said, “pounded his fist on the table and said, ‘We’re a tire company; we don’t use asbestos!’ … They had an asbestos department there at Goodyear. I’ve got pictures of it.”
“They laughed in my face, literally,” Bevan said. “They guaranteed that they would win the case. … After a two-and-a-half-week trial and they lost, they were like: ‘Wait a minute. We have a problem here.’”
Bevan, whose parents worked briefly at tire companies, said one of the saddest of the fifteen thousand asbestos cases handled by his firm involved a retired Goodyear electrician who sold everything to buy a boat to sail around Florida and the Caribbean. “That was his dream for many years, and then he began to have these breathing problems.” He had mesothelioma, an aggressive, asbestos-related cancer that can affect tissue lining the abdomen, lungs, heart or testicles. After his diagnosis, he sold his boat and rented a trailer in Florida.
“I went down to meet with him prior to giving a deposition,” Bevan said. “This big, strong, proud, tall guy was just like a skeleton. The cancer was so bad that he had to urinate about every ten minutes. He had a Porta Potty right there in the trailer next to the chair where he was sitting. He apologized ahead of time because the medication and the cancer were affecting him. He said, ‘I hope you don’t mind.’”
“After a couple of hours, he just couldn’t make it and urinated on himself,” Bevan recalled. “You could see the look on his face — the humiliation and the embarrassment and what this disease had done to him.”
Former employees at rubber companies throughout Akron describe asbestos floating inside plants like snowflakes and coating their skin and clothing with white dust. In his litigation, Bevan used the photos that had accompanied the lead article in a 1964 issue of Goodyear’s newsletter, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the company’s Asbestos Industrial Products Division. The photos show workers with no respiratory protection handling asbestos—from refining the fiber at the loading bin to rolling up sheets of asbestos for shipment.
Asbestos was in the plaster that Nathan J. Manson used to make molds for tires at Goodyear from 1976 to 2005. Manson, who also served as a supervisor, developed breathing problems during that time and was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, known as COPD, about ten years after he retired. He didn’t attempt to sue Goodyear, even though he believes his condition is related to his work there.
“Now that I’m getting older, my COPD is getting bad,” says Manson, who needs oxygen twice a day, uses inhalers and had a stroke three years ago. The seventy-seven-year-old loved fishing on Lake Erie, but ended up selling his boat. Though he still grows green beans, squash, zinnias and especially marigolds in his garden, “I tell everybody, I work for five minutes; then I have to sit down for fifteen.”
Beginning in 1934, Goodyear began making Pliofilm, a rubberized plastic used to protect equipment and weapons as well as to wrap food and drugs, at plants in Akron and St. Mary’s, Ohio. Workers used benzene, a solvent first linked to leukemia and other blood cancers during the late 1940s, in the manufacturing process.
Peter Infante, then a young epidemiologist with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, was among the first to spot the risk to Pliofilm workers. His first study, published in 1977, showed a five- to tenfold increase in the risk of leukemia among workers heavily exposed to benzene from 1940 through follow-ups on their status in 1975.
Immediately after the study was published, OSHA said it would consider an emergency temporary standard for benzene, tightening the exposure limit from ten parts per million to one ppm, thought to be the lowest feasible level. Marvin J. Sakol, an Akron hematologist featured in the study, testified at OSHA’s benzene hearing in Washington on July 20, 1977.
Sakol had treated a number of rubber employees, diagnosing nine of 120 Pliofilm workers with acute erythroleukemia, or Di Guglielmo’s Syndrome, a rare form of cancer. “I became suspicious because they all worked in the same department,” Sakol testified. “Nine people can’t get Di Guglielmo’s out of 120 unless there is something in the environment, work environment, doing it.” When he started asking questions, Sakol said, Goodyear’s medical director told him “to keep my nose out of it and that was none of my business.” The company denied at the time that the Pliofilm workers had been exposed to benzene.
When OSHA moved to make the one ppm benzene standard permanent in 1978, it was sued by the American Petroleum Institute and other industry groups that argued the number was unattainable and would cripple business. In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor, saying the government hadn’t proved that the benzene limit should be lowered. Not until 1987 did the one ppm limit take effect.
Infante, who worked at NIOSH and then OSHA before becoming a plaintiff litigation expert, says that standard is obsolete. “Europeans are recommending a benzene exposure limit of 0.05 ppm—twenty times lower than the U.S.,” he pointed out.
“The rubber industry was full of cancer-causing agents,” said Hefner, the local union leader. “They knew benzene was bad. They knew asbestos was bad. I mean, these companies aren’t stupid, but they refused to do anything about it.”
For example, in the published proceedings of the 28th National Safety Congress in 1939, Goodyear physician Dr. P.A. Davis wrote about “Dusts in the Rubber Industry,” including lung conditions such as asbestosis and silicosis. Davis acknowledged that “all dusts are detrimental in the human system as a whole when the concentrations are high enough.”
Infante said such evidence has been available to companies for more than a century in some cases, citing 1897 Swedish research on the association between benzene and blood disorders. “We had the first cases of leukemia reported in 1928 in Italy,” he said. “The companies had information, I would say, by the ’50s.”
For example, Shell was aware of the connection between benzene and leukemia through a 1943 report prepared for the company and a 1950 memo from a consultant. “Workers were dying not only from aplastic anemia, or to what we call pre-leukemia, but they were also dying from leukemia. And [companies] just sat on it; they didn’t want to affect their business,” Infante said. “And then when the workers would get leukemia, they would deny it, because they didn’t want the public to know.”
While much has changed, internal company memos and other documents dating to the early 1900s indicate that companies throughout the rubber ecosystem were not only aware of the dangers of various chemicals, such as asbestos and benzene, but that some also attempted to conceal the risk these substances posed, as Sakol indicated in his testimony about the blood screenings his leukemia patients received at the rubber plants.
“When we made the site visit in ’76, some of our staff pointed out to us that some folders for the Pliofilm workers were empty, and it seemed suspicious at the time,” Infante recalled.
At Babcock & Wilcox, which supplied many rubber companies with boilers and other products containing asbestos, a memo among eight managers in 1978 suggested quietly fixing violations in its Electrode Shop but not posting warning signs or notifying employees and OSHA about excess dust of “suspected carcinogens [such] as asbestos, iron powder, silica flour and others.”
“The investigation is going to be handled as discreetly as possible,” the memo stated. “It is a concern of the meeting attendees that a labor problem such as a walkout or an OSHA citation for noncompliance would be forthcoming if the hourly labor force was aware of the apparent danger of asbestos exposure.”
BWX Technologies Inc. and Babcock, its former parent company, both declined to comment on the memo. But across the industry, workers had already realized something was wrong. Union leaders negotiated with six major rubber companies to fund health studies on the work environment during the 1970s that resulted in landmark research by Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. “There was consensus between the union and the companies that members were contracting and dying of cancer at a pretty high rate,” said David Goldsmith, an epidemiologist at George Washington University who was part of UNC’s research team and later led a study on prostate cancer among rubber workers.
“Both sides knew that it was a severe issue,” Goldsmith said. “There was clearly a meeting of the minds that in other contexts might have pushed the union and the companies in opposite directions.” With access to company, union and death records, the researchers were able to study specific jobs and their chemical exposures. They diagnosed illnesses among workers in those areas.
Bevan, the plaintiff attorney, said people who didn’t work in the plants also faced damaging exposures—cases that are harder to win. “Some people got the exposure because a family member brought it home on their clothes,” he said. Chemical residue can also collect on workers’ hair, under their nails, or in their pores.
Several medical studies have associated cancer, respiratory conditions, neurological problems and autoimmune disease with take-home and environmental exposures, ranging from asbestos and benzene to neurotoxins that affect the brain and endocrine disruptors such as lead that disrupt neurodevelopment in children. Some chemicals are also transmitted genetically or through transplacental exposure. “For pregnant women exposed to benzene, their children have a higher risk of developing leukemia,” Infante said.
The widow of one of Sakol’s patients developed erythroleukemia after washing her husband’s benzene-saturated overalls night after night for at least two decades. She fought seven years to secure workers’ compensation for her husband’s death, and she died less than a year later, Infante said. “She was never able to get any remedies for her own illness.”
One couple, who lived on the edge of the Industrial Excess Landfill, a Superfund site in Uniontown, Ohio, settled out of court with the potentially responsible parties after their twenty-one-year-old son died of bone cancer. Rubber and other companies dumped tons of solid and liquid waste at the landfill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently began an investigation of groundwater contamination in the area.
Although many rubber workers and residents have sought compensation for illnesses associated with industrial chemicals, untold numbers of people didn’t try, or it never even crossed their minds. Dawn Kupris Phifer suspected a rubber industry connection to cancer and other illnesses suffered by relatives and classmates over the years. Phifer grew up in Goodyear Heights, a factory neighborhood. Her father, grandfather, brother, two sisters, and son all had cancer. Some family members and friends dismissed her concerns or told her she was being negative, she said. This isn’t unusual given the strong city pride and nostalgia for the Rubber City days.
Norma James’s family also never considered any legal action for their ailments. Her father worked at Goodyear and was diagnosed with lung and prostate cancer. Her mother had uterine cancer. Her uncle, a Goodyear employee who lived less than a mile from company headquarters, had prostate cancer, and his wife had brain cancer. James, who has asthma, said her father usually showered at the plant. When he’d wear his work clothes home, he’d remove them in the garage. “He talked about washing his hands and using acetone and benzene to clean himself,” she said. “The doctors later said that the years of doing that could have contributed to his cancer.”
Preston Andrews suspects that disproportionate exposure to lamp black, benzene, and asbestos played a role in the deaths of his father, a Goodrich employee, and an uncle, a Firestone worker. The elder Andrews and his siblings grew up in a tiny village in Louisiana and migrated one by one to an apartment building near Goodyear in East Akron during the 1940s, as word spread of opportunities at the rubber factories and an escape from harsher forms of racism in the Deep South. As in other industries, African Americans were relegated to “occupational ghettos” in the lowest-paying, dirtiest, and most dangerous jobs—work at the front end of production that exposed them daily to a greater share of toxic chemicals, which clung to their clothes and spread to their families.
“When my dad and them first started, they basically worked in the mill room,” Andrews said, describing tasks mixing raw rubber with lamp black and other chemicals. “They couldn’t build tires.” Andrews, who worked at B.F. Goodrich from 1966 until he was downsized in 1981, believes that he might have fared better than his elders, because he spent only two years in the mill room after his father helped him land a job in the hose room.
“It was clear that there were specific job patterns,” Goldsmith, the epidemiologist, said of the UNC and Harvard research findings. “African American men started at the dirtiest jobs like compounding and mixing.”
Manson, who was active in the union, said opportunities and conditions started to improve by the time he and Andrews settled in as rubber workers, the result of union pressure, civil rights legislation and industrial regulations. Pay increased in the mill room, he said, and the pool of workers became more integrated. “The rubber shop started making amends and loosening up because they didn’t want walkouts and sit-down strikes,” Andrews added. “They needed the tire supply.”
The Cuyahoga River—polluted with rubber waste that flowed north from Akron, poisons from Cleveland industry and cars, tires and mattresses dumped there—caught on fire more than a dozen times before the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. It became a symbol of rising environmentalism against a backdrop of deindustrialization. A growing interest in health and environment that began in the 1960s culminated in a flurry of new regulatory agencies and regulations in the 1970s.
Workers and the public saw gradual improvements, though change came too slowly for many, including Gary Clark’s father and grandfather, both of whom died of lung cancer and worked at tire companies. Clark, who joined his father at Goodrich during the late 1970s and worked there for seven years, benefited from more protective gear and safer conditions under the new laws. But he couldn’t escape the lamp black, which seeped from his pores, irritating his skin and staining sheets. Clark said that it took him a month to adjust to the intensity of the sulfuric stench: “That smell is times one hundred once you walk into the plant.”
The laws themselves were not without defects. For example, the Toxic Substances Control Act, known as TSCA, didn’t cover tens of thousands of legacy chemicals that were automatically deemed to be in compliance with testing requirements. Fewer than a dozen chemicals have been banned under TSCA since it took effect in 1976. Not until 2019 did the EPA announce that it would start risk evaluations of asbestos, Trichlorethylene (TCE), 1,3-Butadiene and formaldehyde, all of which have been used in the rubber industry.
OSHA, for its part, has been unable to keep pace with the glut of hazardous chemicals in the workplace. In an unusually candid public statement in 2013, the agency’s then-leader, David Michaels, said, “There is no question that many of OSHA’s chemical standards are not adequately protective.” As a result, OSHA said, “tens of thousands of workers are made sick or die” from chemical exposures.
Environmentalists are cautiously optimistic about the future under the Biden administration, which has moved to increase corporate responsibility for Superfund cleanups and reduce the backlog, among other initiatives. “We’re going to have to wait probably about twenty-four months into this administration to see if they’re really serious,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation. Ali spent twenty-four years with the EPA, most recently as senior adviser for environmental justice and community revitalization.
In Akron, the remaining rubber plants are much safer than in years past, though smaller with the end of passenger tire production between 1975 and 1982. Both Goodyear and Firestone still produce racing tires in the Rubber City. On the corporate level, Goodyear has been experimenting with renewable materials such as soybean oil, which has replaced petroleum in some of its recent tire lines, as well as substitutions for lamp black. Firestone’s parent company is using recovered lamp black from recycled tires to reduce carbon emissions.
Overall rankings for Goodyear, the world’s largest tiremaker, have improved on the Toxic 100 lists released by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Goodyear is now seventy-one on the 2021 Toxic 100 Air Polluters Index, down from nineteen in 2008. Bridgestone/Firestone, eighty-one in 2008, was off the list entirely last year.
Now that most production has shifted south, west and overseas, Akron plants account for less than five percent of their parent companies’ toxic scores. But delays in controlling emissions inside and outside the plants will have long-lasting consequences, said Stephen Markowitz, director of the Barry Commoner Center for Health and the Environment at Queens College in New York, who has consulted with NIOSH and the EPA.
“Safer conditions in the last ten years won’t be reflected in health … for another twenty or thirty years,” said Markowitz, who co-authored a 1991 study linking ortho-toluidine to bladder cancer at Goodyear Chemical in Niagara Falls. And while less pollution is spewing from the factories’ stacks with deindustrialization, toxic chemicals from the past are everywhere. “A lot of soil contamination really sits around for years and years and even decades,” Markowitz said. If the soil is disturbed—say, by construction or children playing—those chemicals can become airborne.
The way forward for citizens is to become more educated about the impact on their health, to push for corporate responsibility, to vote and to improve regulations, policies and funding at the local, state and national level, Ali said. “We have to make sure there’s more transparency in all of these processes and the systems,” he said.
Akron is slowly coming back from its industrial past, continuing attempts to diversify its economic base, clean up symbols of industrial pollution such as Summit Lake, honor rubber workers with a new downtown monument and redevelop brownfields—the empty facilities and land left behind by rubber companies. Jason Segedy, the city’s director of planning and urban development, sees brownfield redevelopment as a win that stimulates economic growth and cleans up potentially hazardous areas.
Akron had seventy-five brownfield sites in an initial inventory, according to the EPA. Two-thirds of the sites are part of three projects in areas with above-average poverty and unemployment rates: Riverwalk, where Goodyear’s new headquarters is located; the Bridgestone Redevelopment Area, which includes Firestone; and the Biomedical Corridor, south of Goodyear and east of Goodrich. The sprawling Goodrich campus now includes a park, business incubator and Spaghetti Warehouse.
A plan to re-envision Summit Lake has captured wide attention. Some Akron residents have fond memories of the lake as a tourist destination with an amusement park, dance hall, skating rink, beach and pool. Located about two miles from downtown, the ninety-seven-acre natural lake was once a source of drinking water, but eventually became so polluted with industrial waste from rubber factories and other companies that the city quit using it for that purpose and banned swimming there.
City leaders have been meeting with residents of the long-neglected Summit Lake community to solicit their input on neighborhood and recreational improvements, update them on water qualitym and attempt to squash gentrification concerns. Firestone’s old pump house there is now a nature center.
Summit Lake is symbolic of how much cleaner Akron has become, said John A. Peck, a professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Akron. For a long time, the magnetic and heavy metal content of the lake’s sediment grew along with the rubber industry and the city’s population. “It skyrocketed, and it stayed high for a long time,” Peck said. With each passing year, cleaner sediment buries contaminated sediment, but “you know not to go dig it up.”
Memories of the sulfuric odor from factory smokestacks still draw debates on whether it was the smell of money and prosperity or of disease and death. Considering the past and future costs, was it all worth it? There are no easy answers. Without the rubber industry, said residents from Europe, Appalachia and the Deep South, they wouldn’t be who they are or where they are. Akron wouldn’t be Akron.
For the Rev. Kevin Goode, often reliant on oxygen tubes to breathe, counting his blessings doesn’t mean he has no regrets. “In retrospect, looking back,” Goode said, “I probably wouldn’t have worked where I worked.” ■
Yanick Rice Lamb, a native of Akron, Ohio, is a professor of journalism at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and co-founder of FierceforBlackWomen.com. Lamb was also a National Press Foundation Cancer Issues Fellow and a National Cancer Reporting Fellow through the National Institutes of Health and the Association of Health Care Journalists.
Cover image by Sleepydre via Wikimedia Commons.
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