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Synthesis/Regeneration 29   (Fall 2002)

Death in the Air:
Air Pollution from Phosphate Fertilizer Production

by George Glasser

In the early predawn hours when the air is still and moist, phosphate fertilizer factories are often shrouded in an acidic haze. Temperature inversions form airy bubbles of noxious, acidic fumes. Lights from the factories seem to blaze through the hellish mist, and the lemony taste of sulfuric and hydrofluoric acid leaves the lips tingling with a slight burning sensation. Then the delicate tissues in the nostrils begin to tingle with a stinging sensation. Floating and sparkling in the still morning air, microscopic acid droplets splash against the thin film of fluid protecting the eyes, and subsequent burning and watering blur one’s vision. And finally, the full impact of inhaling the noxious smog causes choking and coughing.

Sometimes, the misting hydrofluoric, fluorosilicic, phosphoric and sulfuric acids are so concentrated, they etch the windshields and eat the paint off cars passing through the fog.

For those employed at the phosphoric acid factories, this is the work world they enter every day. Day in and day out, they eat, breathe, and drink toxic pollution until they become too sick to work, or die.

Gary Owen Pittman was one of those people. While Gary and his coworkers worked amidst the toxic, corrosive fumes, the corporate elite at Occidental Chemical Corporation sat safely in well-ventilated, air-conditioned offices some seven miles from the factory.

The emissions were so acidic at the plant, visiting secretaries complained of their panty hose being dissolved on their legs. Reassuringly, management said they had come into contact with some chemicals, but there was nothing to worry about.

Gary’s first and last job was working for the Occidental Chemical Corporation’s phosphoric acid factories in Hamilton County, Florida. Gary Pittman was 18 years old and in excellent health when he started to work in the analytical laboratory of the Suwannee River Plant. He rose from a $4,000 sample man in the laboratory to supervising one third of Occidental’s Swift Creek plant, earning about $50,000 a year.

Today, Gary is unable to work and suffers from auto-immune disorders, toxic myopathy, chronic obstructive lung diseases with emphysema, chronic bronchitis, blood disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome, liver dysfunctions, polyarthritis, swelling of feet and lower legs, muscle weakness, cardiac arrhythmia, reactive depression, and memory loss. He walks with a waddling gate and suffers dizziness: the diagnosis is toxic brain syndrome.

Gary Pittman does little these days except surf the internet to learn more about the toxic effects of chemicals to which he and his coworkers were exposed. The list reads like the top 40 toxic chemicals on the Superfund Priority List of hazardous substances that pose the most significant threat to human health. The chemical exposures left him unable to work at the age of 39, and five years later, Gary Pittman finds difficulty enjoying the simple pleasures of life.

The adverse environmental and health effects from phosphoric acid production are well documented in newspaper articles from the 1970’s, 80’s and into the 1990’s. But to the author’s knowledge, the EPA and Centers for Disease Control (USCDC) have never commissioned any substantive studies.

Geology of Florida, 1997 reports: For more than 100 years, Florida has been a major producer of superphosphate fertilizer and phosphoric acid.

There are few regulations governing wastes from phosphoric acid and superphosphate fertilizer production.

In the phosphate producing regions, telltale environmental damage is the legacy of the industry. It is not uncommon to see ragged holes filled with low level radioactive water left from strip-mining operations. Reclaimed land emits high levels of radon; people who have built homes on reclaimed land stand a greater chance of developing lung cancer and leukemia. Phosphogypsum stacks are piled up to 200 feet high and leach toxic chemicals into the aquifer and toxic dust into the atmosphere.

Spills from toxic waste-water ponds dump hundreds of millions of gallons of highly acidic water laced with toxic fluorides, radionuclides, heavy metals, sulfites and phosphoric acid into rivers and streams. Massive fish kills are not unusual when these spills occur. There are few regulations governing wastes from phosphoric acid and superphosphate fertilizer production.

People living near phosphate fertilizer plants are twice as likely to develop lung cancer and osteoblastic leukemia.

Milky, lime green wash water is held in man-made ponds. Toxic waste water evaporates in the searing Florida sun. Hydrogen fluoride is released with other contaminants. According to an article in the Florida Scientist, 1987, by Dr. Howard Moore (deceased), a series of reactions takes place between suspended solids and hydrogen fluoride in the presence of moisture. The reactions create pollutants that can be carried far from the ponds on air currents (possibly hundreds of miles from the site).

The insidious problem with airborne fluorides is that they can be very reactive when they come in contact with moisture. When inhaled, many fluoride salts react with water (moist lung tissue) and break down into hydrofluoric acid and a toxic component. The reaction of hydrofluoric acid with lung surface burns a tiny hole in the tissue, and the toxic component is left at the site of damage. It is like rubbing dirt into a wound or injecting a poison. The airborne fluoride salt can act to enhance the effect of the toxic component.

People living near phosphate fertilizer plants are twice as likely to develop lung cancer and osteoblastic leukemia. While high cancer rates for people living near phosphoric acid plants are noted in magazine and newspaper articles, little is ever said about workers and their families.

Workers have to go into acid reaction chambers filled with toxic fumes and scour scale from filters and walls. The scale is so radioactive, up to 100,000 picocuries of radium per gram, that the only landfill in the country that accepts naturally occurring radioactive wastes will not accept the scale from phosphate fertilizer production. The radioactive wastes are either buried in the gypsum stacks or dumped into holding ponds.

Crystallized, radioactive silica tetrafluoride has to be chipped from pollution scrubbers. The residue is so hard that jack hammers must be used to remove the buildup. Workers are required to go into these hell holes and perform these dirty tasks, many times without adequate safety equipment. Workers are not only exposed to the naturally occurring toxic substances, but also manmade chemicals used as reagents, defoamers (possibly containing dioxins) and flocculants to more efficiently produce phosphoric acid.

The fluorosilicic acid produced in pollution scrubbers is sold as a water fluoridation agent. More than 50% of US cities which fluoridate drinking water use some form of the highly toxic pollution. Neither the EPA nor US Public Health Service can produce one safety or clinical study on this use.

A 1983 query to EPA regarding the use of toxic waste for water fluoridation resulted in the following response:

In regard to the use of fluosilicic (fluorosilicic) acid as a source of fluoride for fluoridation, this agency regards such use as an ideal environmental solution to a long-standing problem. By recovering by-product fluosilicic acid from fertilizer manufacturing, water and air pollution are minimized, and water utilities have a low-cost source of fluoride available to the communities. (Rebecca Hanmer, Deputy Administrator, Office of Water, EPA in 1983 correspondence to Dr. Leslie Russell stating EPA position on water fluoridation).

Sulfuric acid is also essential to phosphoric acid production. The plants produce their own sulfuric acid. The acid is mixed with finely ground phosphate rock producing noxious vapors containing heavy metals, sulfates, fluorosilicates, hydrogen fluoride and other contaminants. Uncontrolled releases of highly toxic hydrogen sulfide gas are commonplace, especially during unloading in the molten state.

Only recently has the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) required companies to place liners under phospho-gypsum stacks. Because of airborne fluorine pollution, manufacturers were forced by EPA to install pollution scrubbers in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. But in Florida it is common knowledge that the phosphate companies set the environmental ground rules, and the EPA and FDEP tend to turn a blind eye regarding the violation of environmental regulations.

…the phosphate companies set the environmental ground rules…

There is speculation that preferred treatment for phosphate fertilizer manufacturers started when the first atomic bombs were being developed. It was discovered that uranium-238 could be extracted from phosphate rock.

During the Cold War era, 75% of the uranium oxide used to produce nuclear weapons and fuel for the nuclear power industry came from several Florida phosphate fertilizer plants. Today, the laxity on the part of EPA in enforcing federal regulations is probably a leftover attitude from the days when phosphate fertilizer plants were a national security asset.

Gary Pittman’s deposition for a lawsuit reads like a 20-year sentence to hell. “When I first started working for Occidental, safety considerations were basically nonexistent. The only thing we were required to wear were safety glasses. Gloves, respirators and dust masks were not furnished.”

In the 20 years working for Occidental, Gary had never taken a urine test, even when he became ill.

In 1987, according to Gary, Occidental management decided to shut down a pollution scrubber stating that it was not needed. For almost three years, in spite of violating state regulations and in felony violation of the Clean Air Act, Occidental operated the facility with the pollution scrubber shut down to save money. The entire population of Hamilton County, Florida was exposed to toxic emissions from the plant, possibly many times what are considered safe levels.

Aside from orange juice, phosphoric acid and superphospmhate fertilizer are Florida’s primary exports…

The complaint written by Gary Pittman’s attorneys alleges that Occidental failed to provide and/or destroyed product data safety sheets and warning labels on toxic chemicals to avoid the expense of purchasing adequate safety equipment.

In documents and tapes provided by Pittman, he states that ventilation in the work areas was also poor and the equipment often failed. At one time the air-conditioning in laboratories recirculated the toxic air. During analytical procedures, toxic gases were recirculated in the rooms. “We poured all sorts of chemicals down an open drain in the floor. Sometimes they would start boiling and fuming. All those noxious fumes were recirculated by the air conditioning system. We were continuously breathing that stuff, back then. We didn’t know any better.”

Of the 8 original plaintiffs who were directly exposed to the chemicals, only 6 remain, but others are coming forward. Two have died: one, plaintiff a non-smoker died from lung and liver cancer, and the other from bone cancer. Gary said the wife and daughter of one man suffering with similar health problems and neurotoxic damage have developed similar symptoms.

Gary Owen Pittman is concerned about the lawsuit because he knows that he is going up against a mammoth organization with much to lose. The parent company of Occidental Chemical Corporation, Hooker Chemical Corporation, is no stranger to litigation. Hooker Chemical was responsible for Love Canal. Both companies are owned by Occidental Petroleum Corp. Not only is he going up against Occidental, Pittman and the surviving plaintiffs in the lawsuit are taking on the entire phosphate fertilizer industry.

Expecting a 20% increase in the global demand for superphosphate fertilizer, chemical corporations have dumped over 10 billion dollars into phosphoric acid and phosphate mining in the state of Florida. Today, Florida’s phosphate fertilizer producers supply 30% of the world demand and 75% of the domestic supply, account for some 50,000 jobs nationwide and $800 million in wages. Aside from orange juice, phosphoric acid and superphosphate fertilizer are Florida’s primary exports: a major contributor to reducing the national trade deficit. And it also appears the industry is a major contributor of illness and death to people who live and work in the toxic, radioactive fallout.

Copyright 1998,1999 by George Glasser, St. Petersburg, Fla.

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