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Workers say they were exposed to carcinogen at WestRock plant this month in Longview

LONGVIEW, Wash. (From news reports) -- Several workers claim they were exposed to a cancer-causing chemical for several days last week while working at Longview's WestRock facility. Two went to the emergency room.

Robby Johnson, senior manager of Corporate Communications for WestRock, said during maintenance on a recovery boiler, "areas of colored scale" and "deposits were discovered on the boiler tubes."

He said the facility is conducting tests to "definitively characterize the material," and said there is no threat to the public, adding WestRock is taking the appropriate safety precautions and that nobody has been injured or hospitalized.

"WestRock is continuing to work to ensure the safety of its Longview team members," Johnson said.

However, at least two workers went to the emergency room, with one being referred by a clinic over suspected exposure to hexavalent chromium, a type of chromium typically produced in an industrial setting that is known to cause cancer.

One employee said he was sent to Performance Occupational Health Services.

The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries has launched two inspections at WestRock: one dealing with a complaint of exposure to hexavalent chromium, and the other a potential injured worker, according to agency spokesperson Dina Lorraine.

Lorraine said officials with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries were on site in Longview on Monday.

According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, hexavalent chromium can have adverse effects on the respiratory system, kidneys, liver, skin and eyes.

The California Environmental Protection Agency website notes that hexavalent chromium is used in stainless steel production, welding, pigments, leather tanning and dyes, to name a few industrial applications.

OSHA says it's added to increase hardenability and corrosion resistance.

Symptoms of hexavalent chromium exposure include sneezing, burning sensation, itching, coughing and a runny nose, and high levels of exposure increase the risk of lung and other nasal cancers.

The chemical became widely known in the 1990s after a class-action lawsuit, led by famed consumer rights activist and paralegal Erin Brockovich, against California based company Pacific Gas and Electric Co., in which hexavalent chromium-contaminated groundwater in a small California town caused residents to experience serious health effects.

The events were later dramatized in the 2000 film "Erin Brockovich," starring Julia Roberts.

According to sources familiar with the Longview incident, the initial exposure may have occurred on June 9 when a crew of workers was conducting maintenance on a recovery boiler in Furnace 22 at WestRock, 300 Fibre Way.

Test results arrived at about 4 p.m. June 12, leading to the closure of Furnace 22. Workers said the entrances were taped up, and the area -- though not the entire WestRock site -- was evacuated. One worker said the results had came back positive for hexavalent chromium.

Another worker said WestRock employees ridiculed them for their reluctance to continue working after the suspicious substance was discovered.

Asked about that reaction, WestRock's Johnson said, "I can't confirm that. I can confirm that work was immediately stopped in the area, and that we are continuing to ensure the safety of our team members."

On June 14, exposed workers were sent to the lab for testing.

One worker shared his referral from Performance Occupational Health Services to an emergency room. It asked ER clinicians to "please evaluate and treat" his symptoms, which included possible urinary and/or kidney infections.

Another worker said some of the substance made contact with his arms and face, causing a burning sensation after he scrapped some of the material of the wall of a tube with a broom.

The crew was working 12-hour shifts Sunday through Wednesday, and according to two employees, they were not wearing the proper personal protective equipment to handle hexavalent Chromium exposure.

They only wore Tyvek suits, cutlass gloves, standard hard hats, boots, and N95 masks. One employee noted that many workers in the building were wearing even less protective gear.

According to the OSHA, the federal agency established an eight hour-to-weight exposure limit of 5 micrograms per cubic meter of air. According to an employee, the test results indicated the exposure level was 4,000 times the permissible limit.

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