November 19, 2008 The Pump Handle 2Comment

Our regular readers are well aware of the product defense tactics pioneered by the tobacco industry and taken to a new level by manufacturers of other dangerous products. Hazards magazine has just put out a new article about a manganese company that’s following that playbook faithfully, even though it’s clear that its factory is making workers terribly ill.

Ten workers from the Assmang manganese processing plant in Cato Ridge, South Africa have been certified by the country’s Compensation Commissioner as being permanently disabled as a result of manganism, a Parkinson’s-like syndrome involving a host of neurological problems that’s caused by excessive manganese exposure. Here’s how Numsa, the workers’ union, describes their situation to Hazards:

The union says exposure to manganese has had a devastating effect on Assmang workers. “They cannot continue working as a result of their physical symptoms. They walk with difficulty, many of them use walking sticks. They experience tremors and they shake. They have low concentration spans, and are afflicted with memory loss. At home many have erectile dysfunction and diminished libido,” Mminele said.

Their families, too, are suffering. “Their moods swing and they experience depression. This spills over into spouses and families. Once strong men have been reduced physically and mentally, they have diminished self esteem and are not more dependent on their families. This has a detrimental effect on their marital relationship.”

But the company’s behaviour could make their plight much worse, he said. “Those that are being compensated by government battle to survive on this money that does not even cover their medical bills. And the company is challenging this compensation on the grounds that it does not believe these workers are suffering from manganism.”

Much like cigarette companies insisting that something else must be causing high rates of lung cancer among smokers, Assmang claims that the workers’ symptoms aren’t caused by manganese. And when doctors tell them that their product is to blame, they dig up experts who’ll claim the opposite:

Assmang had already said it doesn’t believe any workers have manganism and it has tried to stop further cases being assessed for compensation. Ahead of the most recently concluded session, held in September 2008, Assmang threatened to cut off benefits to those disabled but not yet receiving government compensation unless they agreed to an examination by the company’s new team of medical advisers. …

The union, though, has no confidence in the experts lined up by the company. [Numsa occupational safety and health coordinator Puleng] Mmineli says in September 2008 the inquiry heard how independent doctors that had examined the patients “were sidelined in favour of a company doctor who found no evidence of manganism.”

Dr Susan Tager, a senior neurologist who heads the movement disorders clinic at Wits University, was a member of the original Assang expert panel, set up after emergence of suspected cases of manganese-related chronic disease. She and her colleagues confirmed workers had developed manganism. In August 2007, however, Tager was among several prominent neurologists and specialists replaced on Assmang’s expert panel and excluded from conducting further medical examinations of Assmang patients.

Giving evidence at the September 2008 hearings, she expressed surprise at the conclusion of the company’s new medical advisers – who said there were no cases of manganism at all at the firm, instead suggesting the symptoms could be caused by drug and alcohol abuse, Aids, or a range of other disorders. …

The firm is demanding that all the patients are reassessed by US neurologist Dr Warren Olanow, to provide a definitive diagnosis. Research by Numsa suggested he was far from an impartial choice.

“In manganism-related litigation in the US, Manhattan neurologist Warren Olanow was identified in court documents this year as this biggest single recipient of industry cash,” said Mminele. “Two consulting firms linked by the documents to Olanow received almost $2.9m (about £1.6m) from sources defending manganese-related compensation cases.

“He is a defence favourite in manganese litigation, who has published at least a dozen articles cited by defence experts in US manganism litigation,” said Mminele.

To put the $2.9 million paid to Olanow into context, here’s Jim Morris writing in Mother Jones about the research that U.S. welding companies used to defend themselves against lawsuits from sick workers:

Court documents obtained by Mother Jones show that the welding companies paid more than $12.5 million to 25 organizations and 33 researchers, virtually all of whom have published papers dismissing connections between welding fumes and workers’ ailments.

Some companies would rather spend millions on product defense than compensate those who’ve suffered from exposure to substances the companies know to be dangerous. Eventually, as was the case with cigarettes, the scientific evidence and public outcry may become so overwhelming that the industry will have to retire its tactics of denial and expert-buying, and move on to other strategies (like shipping its products to countries where health standards and enforcement are lax). Until then, those who are exposed will keep paying the price.

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