Canada

Poly-killer

‘I think I have cancer,’ Hilarion Blais said, and two big tears rolled down his cheeks. Ten weeks later he died, one more victim of the Chemical Age

Glen Allen April 19 1976
Canada

Poly-killer

‘I think I have cancer,’ Hilarion Blais said, and two big tears rolled down his cheeks. Ten weeks later he died, one more victim of the Chemical Age

Glen Allen April 19 1976

Poly-killer

‘I think I have cancer,’ Hilarion Blais said, and two big tears rolled down his cheeks. Ten weeks later he died, one more victim of the Chemical Age

Glen Allen

It was a Thursday in June of 1974, a cloudy day “with sunny breaks,” just as the weatherman had promised, and the universe was doubtless unfolding as it should. Guerrilla warriors in Angola announced peace was about to break out, and Italy was on the very verge of social breakdown. In Manitoba rogue caterpillars were busy eating their way across miles of farmland. In Ottawa that Thursday, Tory MP Paul Hellyer said Canada needed more houses. In Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau’s city council, without benefit of public tender, chose a contractor for the then $240-million Olympic stadium. And in Shawinigan, Quebec, a 53-year-old chemical worker named Hilarion Blais went to the doctor.

He didn’t want to go. He hadn’t been sick since he was a boy, and he hated the stink of hospitals. But as he told his friends at Shawinigan’s B. F. Goodrich plant, where he had worked for 25 years, there was something really wrong. Claude Moreau remembers Blais telling him, “My gut hurts, Claude. It hurts like hell.” A family man who spent more time in church than he did in the tavern and who loved hunting and fishing, Hilarión Blais was to start his holidays that weekend, but the doctor found a “mass” in his abdomen, something big and evil, and six days later he was on the operating table at the towering new Centre Hôpital Régional de la Mauricie in nearby Shawinigan Sud. Surgeons cut off a bit of his liver for the hospital’s chief pathologist, Dr. Fernand Delorme, a pudgy Montrealer, then just 38, who came from a family of doctors and had begun his job at the hospital six months before. Delorme hastily put a quick-frozen section of the liver tissue under his microscope while Blais, still in anesthesia, waited in the operating room. Delorme had never seen anything like it before. “It’s cancer alright,” he told the surgeon. “A rare tumor of some kind. But you’ll have to give me a day or two.” The next day he was preparing more sophisticated stains for the Blais tissue when the family doctor chanced to mention his patient was employed at the town’s Goodrich polyvinyl plant. “Something went click,” Delorme recalls. His mind raced back four months to a short article he had seen in the medicine section of Time magazine that had described the discovery of an extremely rare form of liver cancer called angiosarcoma among polyvinyl workers at a Goodrich plant in Kentucky. Delorme looked for the disease in the Blais tissue— and that’s what he found.

Hilarión Blais died 10 weeks later, the first diagnosed victim of the angiosarcoma in Canada. His death was a grim milestone in the country’s march through the Chemical Age and a cruel blow not only for the Blais family and friends but for the already troubled town and the half-billion dollar Canadian polyvinyl industry. For there is never just one case of angiosarcoma.

Shawinigan is a smiling, hilly town of 28,000 folded into an elbow of the St. Maurice River, 110 miles northeast of Montreal and 21 miles north of Trois-Rivières. Its name comes from the Cree word for eel, and from Shawinigan’s native sons you can assemble a cocktail of personalities as diverse as Claude Wagner, Jacques Plante, opera singer Graziella Dumaine and Jean

oChretien. Shawinigan is one of the many Quebec communities outside Montreal and Quebec City that are standing correctives to the waves of self-righteousness that sweep English Canada from time to time to the effect that Quebec is a land of surly and indolent crooks. People in Shawinigan still stop and talk to each other and to strangers as if the performance of the small and common courtesies were somehow important. There is a good public library with all but the very latest novels of Iris Murdoch or Graham Greene, and a palatial cultural centre that always seems to be busy. The best room in the town’s secondbest hotel costs $ 10, and across the street at the Librairie Sauvageau the day before yesterday’s Le Monde and today’s Globe and Mail lie cheek by jowl with Oui, Lui and Playboy. The best time to visit, they say, is in the autumn, when the hills and steep bluffs burn with the yellows and reds of the changing season. “Right about the end of September,” says the principal of a local high school, “the leaves almost hide the smokestacks.”

And there are smokestacks. Stacks and pipes and Rube Goldbergian inventions of conduits, troughs and boilers out to the horizon. Shawinigan was conceived, built and nourished by industry from the very beginning. Financiers from the United States and English Canada fell on the town at the turn of the century like famished locusts on a field of grain. There was power there—cheap power from the swift St. Maurice—and the power brought Dupont, CIL, British American Oil, Alcan, and between 1930 and 1950 the city boomed. The companies could hardly keep up with the orders from their European customers. Then hydro was nationalized and electricity cost the same in Montreal as it did in Shawinigan. The Europeans recovered from their war, formed a common market and began to produce what they needed themselves. The population of Shawinigan stood still, then declined. Young people left and never returned and unemployment—now at 17%—climbed higher and higher. Other towns, such as Bécancour just down the St. Lawrence from TroisRivières, began to attract new industry that in the past would have settled in Shawinigan. Then the social costs of Shawinigan’s long, now fading prosperity began to show. The St. Maurice, lovely as it ever was to the eye, was unspeakably dirty with industrial waste. A scientist poking around noticed the red and white pines in the woods near the city were stunted and dying. There weren’t any blueberries anymore. A University of Quebec ecologist put the seal on it when he declared that Shawinigan was more polluted even than Sudbury, Ontario, because of “its worrisome mixture of toxic gases.”

The factory now owned by B. F. Goodrich was built in 1942. It makes polyvinyl chloride resin from a gas called vinyl chloride monomer (though now the gas is made at a Dow plant near Sarnia and sent by rail to Shawinigan in liquid form). The first tenant of the plant was Canadian Resin and Chemical, a corporate marriage of Shawinigan Water and Power and Union Carbide, which later sold the plant to BA Oil (later Gulf Oil) which in turn sold it only four years ago to Goodrich.

Goodrich is the largest maker of polyvinyl chloride resins in the world, with one other factory at Niagara Falls, Ont., and several in the United States, and their product is the second best-selling of the 35 plastics manufactured for commercial use (only polyethylene sells more). Developed around 1939, it is strong, resists heat, cold and acids, can be made stiff or flexible, thick or sheet-thin. It comes clear or can be colored, embossed or printed on. It is everywhere—in the seat of your car, the soles of your shoes, your wallpaper and kitchen floor. Phonograph records, garden hoses and children’s dolls are made of PVC, as are credit cards. It has revolutionized hospital care with throwaway syringes and vials. It is colorless and sweet-smelling at concentrations above 2,000 parts per million of air and, because of the giddy feeling it gives those who breathe it, was briefly essayed as an anesthetic in the 1940s. In the Shawinigan plant the liquefied monomer gas is mixed in huge kettles to form a slurry which is then dried to a white powder that looks for all the world like icing sugar. But it is the gas that kills. It was the gas that killed Hilarión Blais. It was the gas, as the diligent Dr. Delorme was to discover, that killed at least eight other Shawinigan polyvinyl chloride workers between 1955 and 1974, and it will be the gas that in years to come will kill still other men who breathed it years ago.

Dr. Delorme saw Hilarión Blais for the first time on the autopsy table after his death on September 4. While doctors had vainly tried to treat three angiosarcoma victims in the United States with chemotherapy and radiation, Blais had been given “conservative treatment,” that is, a tonic for his appetite and painkillers (which according to his widow didn’t kill the pain), and he died quickly. Delorme looked at the liver and confirmed his original diagnosis. He knew what he had on his hands was dynamite. That year Goodrich, Goodyear and Firestone had all announced deaths from angiosarcoma in the United States, but so far none had been discovered in Canada. Delorme marshaled his facts and presented the Blais case to a slide seminar for pathologists at the University of Montreal and McGill University on November 27. After other doctors confirmed his diagnosis he told John Brooks, a Sarnia native who had spent more than 25 years in Shawinigan and was now the plant manager. Brooks said, “It’s not possible,” and told Delorme to keep it quiet until he contacted headquarters. The medical adviser to the U.S. parent company was on the next plane. He too confirmed Delorme’s diagnosis and in January, 1975, workers were told—first by a notice on the bulletin board, then in a meeting—that someone (no names were released; not even Delorme would say it was Blais) had died of angiosarcoma and that their work was possibly hazardous, especially if they had worked long in the resin section of the plant.

Delorme sent a copy of the Blais autopsy to Quebec’s Commission des Accidents du Travail, which sent an officer to interview Mrs. Blais in her robin’s-egg blue frame house on the edge of Shawinigan Sud and then began paying her the standard pension (as of January, it was $240 monthly for herself and a daughter still going to school). Delorme, however, didn’t leave it there. Going through the hospital files as far back as 1955 he found seven other cases of angiosarcoma. Those widows got pensions, too, retroactive to the deaths of their husbands. One woman whose husband died in 1962 wrote Delorme suggesting that her husband had died of the same thing. Delorme found he had. That made eight deaths (nine with Blais), but how many were there really? How many doctors had told polyvinyl workers they were dying of cirrhosis or classic liver cancer or other liver ailments and left it at that without conducting autopsies after the fact? Ten? Twenty? Fifty? No one knows. Delorme suspects at least twice as many as the known victims. And a study by Laval University’s Dr. Gilles Theriault pointed out that between 1969 and 1972 the Quebec tumor registry showed the Shawinigan area as having by far the highest incidence of liver cancer in the province.

DID GOODRICH OFFER TO HELP THE WIDOWS? IT DIDN’T EVEN SEND NOTES OF SYMPATHY

Delorme has now published three papers, with American pathologists as coauthors, on 18 Goodrich angiosarcomas in Canada and in Kentucky. Their studies show the average age at death was 46.7 years with an average of 17 years, three months, spent working in a polyvinyl plant. The cancers didn’t appear until at least 10 years after exposure began. One angiosarcoma victim had worked with polyvinyl for only four years.

Chemicals and other industrial substances have been suspected of causing cancer as far back as 1775 when chimney sweeps, without regular bathing, developed what was then called “soot-wart.” Since then, patterns of cancer have been found in fur and ammunition handlers; rope, butter, lipstick and watchmakers; telephone linemen, printers and many others. Some researchers now think that as many as 90% of cancers are related to things—dust, smoke, chemicals, industrial compounds—in the environment. But 90% of those cancers show up first in the skin or epithelium, which is what makes angiosarcoma so exquisitely cruel. The liver is well hidden—a four-pound maroon loaf of an organ, a kind of nether brain performing amazingly complex tasks. The liver can take almost any insult, including heroic boozing, and still come back, but it rarely recovers from cancer, especially angiosarcoma, which renders it a huge and useless sponge. By the time an angiosarcoma victim feels bad it’s too late.

Hilarión Blais was the perfect candidate for angiosarcoma. For 22 of his 25 years at the plant (he spent the last three as a guard at the plant gate) he had been a pipefitter. It was Blais who had to rush in with his wrenches and hammers and stop leaks of the gas, which is so volatile that shippers discovered they were losing 30 pounds per load to the atmosphere in shipment. “Hilarión wasn’t afraid of anything,” says Mrs. Yvette Blais, a spirited and witty woman. “He’d go anywhere and take anything on. But there was nothing he could do about this, was there?

“We might have known something was funny. There was this smell that followed him home after work—kind of an acid smell. He had a shower after his shift and he’d have a bath at home, but even at that our bedroom was full of that smell all night long. Well, he started having pains two or three months before I could get him to go to the doctor—I made him go. And then it all happened so fast when he did. The doctor wanted to tell him he had cancer, but I don’t know, I didn’t want him to know. But 1 think he knew anyways. He said he had heard doctors talking about cancer when he was going under the anesthetic at the hospital. He looked at me and he said, ‘Yvette, I think I have cancer,’ and two big tears came down his cheeks. That was all we ever said about it.”

Mrs. Blais is sitting on a vinyl-covered kitchen chair. The floor under her is vinyl. There is vinyl covering on the couch in the living room, vinyl flowers on top of the TV set and beside them, in a tub, a tiny vinyl palm tree. She brings out one of the memorial cards she had made for mourners and friends, a dim photograph of her husband in an oval frame. The picture is of a man who had not often had his picture taken, a man someone had instructed to look serious, the blunt jaw bracketed by traces of what must be laugh lines. Mrs. Blais carefully unfolds a worn little paper that said her husband had once been in the Three Rivers Tank Regiment. Then she cries.

Hilarión Blais and others died before their time without even knowing they were running a risk. Who’s to blame—the company? B. F. Goodrich makes much of the fact that these men did not get sick on their time. Whatever it was that made their cells go berserk was sown in their bodies when the plant belonged to someone else. They have installed alarms that go off when the concentration of gas is over 25 parts per million, improved ventilation and found a new way of cleaning the vats where the slurry is made from the gas. Extensive medical checks have been carried out on all employees, even Brooks the manager, and Delorme says the results give him no cause for concern. The company is spending four million dollars on safety measures in the Shawinigan and Niagara Falls plants and, while more men may die from being exposed in the past, no one will be exposed to lethal doses of the gas in the future. The company says it wasn’t aware the gas was a carcinogen until the deaths in Kentucky, but polyvinyl chloride has been a known medical menace since 1949 when liver anomalies were discovered among Russian PVC workers. Later it was found PVC workers and even those who wrap foods in vinyl wrap were suffering from a degenerative disease of the finger bones called acro-osteolysis. Back in 1970 an Italian researcher reported rats exposed to vinyl chloride gas developed cancer, and two years later the eminent cancerologist Cesare Maltoni reported that it caused angiosarcoma in rats. As for medical testing, it wasn’t begun until March 1975, 15 months after the first Kentucky deaths.

B. F. Goodrich does not feel moved to help the widows of the Shawinigan victims financially (Mrs. Blais says she never heard from the company at all—not a letter of sympathy, not even a phone call). “It’s an occupational accident,” explains Owen Lackenbauer, public affairs director for the Goodrich Canada head office in Kitchener. “We have to treat it just like a worker who gets crushed to death.” In other words, the men working with pvc were simply accidents waiting to happen. Every day they faced danger hardly commensurate with their modest wages ($5.10 an hour in the contract about to expire), and they didn’t even know it. Goodrich hasn’t been able to contact the hundreds of men who worked in the Shawinigan plant for a few years and left, possibly taking with them the seed of the thing that would one day devour their liver. “We’ve tried as best we could,” said Lackenbauer, “but those records belong to Gulf Oil.”

As for the air in the plant, the provincial government’s environment protection branch is supposed to inspect gas levels, but according to Raoul Bourdages, head of the industrial inspection branch, it hasn’t been done for a year. The Quebec government has not set an upper safety limit for concentration of vinyl chloride monomer anyway, even thou^J, the limit is one part per million in the united States and 10 parts per million in Ontario.

There have been other things in Shawinigan to worry about these past two years besides the strange death of Hilarión Blais and what came later. The fact is many people still don’t know anything about it A barber and a taxi driver had never heard of the deaths at Goodrich. Neither had a public health worker in the city’s sober city hall. Shawinigan Mayor Dominique Grenier knew about it, alright, but says, “There were only two or three, and all that’s over with.” Information about Blais and the others hasn’t been exactly copious: there were two articles in a local paper— the first stating that Delorme had uncovered four deaths, the second congratulating the company for improving safety. Men working at the plant when Blais died are still working there. “It’s like smoking cigarettes,” said one. “You know it’s not good for you but what do you do?” Said René Moisan, a polyvinyl worker for 23 of his 45 years, “We worry about the thing, but you don’t think it’s going to happen to you—maybe the next guy but not you.” The union, an affiliate of Quebec’s Confederation of National Trade Unions, complains about lack of information. They have asked for medical reports on all members and been refused because the company says reports are between “a man and his doctor.” The union believes that in fact 14 men have died of work-related cancer (though they aren’t sure who) and suggests the most recent victim was a plant worker named Germain Hébert who died last December. “He had a tube hanging out of his liver,” said a friend. The company says that, yes, Hébert died of cancer, but it wasn’t angiosarcoma. The widow Hébert lives in a tiny bottom apartment of a triplex a few streets over from Mrs. Blais and spends her days waiting for an insurance man. She will get no pension and has no suspicions her husband’s death was work related.

Maybe she’s too trusting. One of the nine cases discovered by Delorme had classic liver cancer as well as angiosarcoma. The Laval University-Theriault study states flatly: “The distribution of primary liver cancer in Quebec is similar to the distribution of the plastics industry.” A Boston researcher suggests there may be some link between polyvinyl monomer and other forms of cancer. An Environment Canada chemist who has written about polyvinyl chloride says there may even be a danger in ambient air, that is the air that leaves the plant and goes into the community. A little of the gas is released when the slurry is dried to make the powder, a little more when polyvinyl products are incinerated. “It’s not much, but who knows what is significant. Who knows how much is too much—inside the plant or out?” The Shawinigan deaths are just one very stark example of the dangers of the rampant use of chemicals in industry. New chemicals are discovered every day-long webs and networks of carbon and hydrogen whose effects on workers and consumers alike may not show up for years. We are all subjects in a vast environmental experiment, something union officials, scientists, governments and captains of industry are just now beginning to wake up to. “Look at it this way,” says Claude Mainville, a Montreal engineer studying the Shawinigan case for the Confederation of National Trade Unions. “There are about 2.5 million chemicals used in industry today. Now 600,000 of those are known to represent some degree of danger. Yet we have norms for only 425 of them. Even those can’t be effectively enforced. Take Quebec with its tens of thousands of industries. There aren’t 20 inspectors for the whole province. A place can go a long time without a visit.”

“There’s something to that,” says Dr. Delorme. “We have to start asking ourselves more about the things we make. How many times does a pathologist perform an autopsy and find lesions he can’t account for—the product of something that entered that body 10 or 20 years before? Take vinyl, for instance. This phone is vinyl. That bottle is vinyl. That thing over there is vinyl. Yet who would have ever suspected?” O