A former employee of Pantasote Co., a defunct PVC processor in Passaic, N.J., has filed a class-action lawsuit against the company, its suppliers and insurers in Essex County Superior Court in Newark, N.J. The former worker claims the firms conspired to hide health risks associated with exposure to vinyl chloride monomer.
``The claim is that all the [VCM] and PVC people knew about the danger and concealed it for 40 or 50 years,'' said Ron Simon, a Washington lawyer who represents Nicholas Lewis Jr. of Butler, N.J.
Lewis worked for Pantasote for five years. His father, Nicholas Lewis Sr., worked at the Passaic plant for 30 years and later died of liver cancer, which Lewis Jr. claims was caused by exposure to VCM.
The 36 suppliers named in the suit include current PVC makers Oxy Vinyls LP of Dallas and Georgia Gulf Corp. of Atlanta, as well as companies that have exited the PVC market, such as Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Bridgestone Firestone Inc. and Monsanto Co.
Pantasote produced PVC in Passaic for several decades until it closed the operation in the early 1980s, industry sources said. Pantasote - named for a Greek word that means ``covers all'' - used the PVC in its calendered and laminated products, including shades used in railroad cars and coverings for auto exteriors. A private investor bought the publicly held company in the late 1980s.
That investor, a New Jersey lawyer, sold Pantasote off in parts, including plants in Indiana, West Virginia and Italy. A PVC compounding business continued to operate in Passaic until the early 1990s.
Simon said that since the lawsuit was filed, he has been contacted by about 30 former Pantasote workers interested in joining the case. The suit ultimately could include ``a couple of hundred'' former Pantasote workers, Simon estimated.
No court dates have been set.
Simon is working with lawyer Jon Gelman of Wayne, N.J., on the Pantasote case. Simon previously has worked with Baggett, McCall, Burgess & Watson, a law firm based in Lake Charles, La., that has handled several VCM-related cases in the past decade.
In the early 1970s the PVC industry acknowledged that workers with prolonged exposure to VCM were at risk of developing angiosarcoma, a form of liver cancer.
Manufacturing changes were made to limit exposure to VCM. No documented cases of angiosarcoma have been reported among VCM workers who started working after 1975, according to the Vinyl Institute, an industry trade association in Arlington, Va..
Don Evans, senior legal counsel with the American Chemistry Council in Washington, said he had not seen the Pantasote lawsuit, but added that similar lawsuits filed in recent years ``often make inaccurate allegations against the vinyl chloride industry.''
``If you take a fair look at the historical record, it will show that the industry acted responsibly,'' Evans said in a telephone interview.
``When the industry discovered the angiosarcoma problem, it changed the way it works. It's a safe industry today.
``This isn't the first time [the industry] has been sued,'' Evans added. ``Every time, the people who are suing say they're basing [their lawsuits] on an alleged conspiracy among VCM makers.
``But the industry's findings were done by world-class scientists and published in widely read journals, so if it was a conspiracy, it was the worst conspiracy ever.''
An Oxy Vinyls spokesman said he had not seen the lawsuit and declined comment. Georgia Gulf officials could not be reached.
Pantasote's insurers - Allstate and New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Group - also are targeted by the lawsuit.
Legal records available on vinylchloride.com - a Web site operated by Bagget, McCall, Burgess & Watson - refer to a 1959 communication between Pantasote and VCM maker Union Carbide Corp., in which Pantasote requested toxicology data on VCM in response to personal-injury lawsuits filed by Passaic workers exposed to the material.
But a spokesman for New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Group told the West Paterson (N.J.) Herald News that the company never received a claim from a Pantasote worker reporting injuries suffered as a result of exposure to vinyl chloride. New Jersey Manufacturers underwrote Pantasote's worker's compensation from 1962-82.