Chemical Warrior

When Phyllis Glazer learned a chemical plant was making her East Texas neighbors sick, the wealthy Dallas homemaker could have cut and run. Instead, she chose to stay, fight, and win.

The Smileys' third child, Stephanie, has a severe growth problem and suffers from unexplained skin ailments. Now 14, Courtney's problems continue to grow worse. She twice has had grapefruit-size tumors removed from the base of her neck, and she was recently diagnosed with a seizure disorder. Two years ago, after an explosion at the plant released a potent herbicide into the air, the Smileys finally abandoned their roomy three-bedroom house, which sat a mile and a half downwind from the plant. They were unable to sell the house; when company officials repeatedly denied that their plant was responsible for harming Winona's residents, Linda asked one--who lived 20 minutes away--to move into her house. The Smileys moved into a cramped two-room apartment in Tyler, where they continue to fight for their daughters' health and against financial ruin. Courtney regularly visits eight different doctors in Dallas and Tyler; their mounting medical bills recently forced the Smileys to file bankruptcy.

"I don't want people to feel sorry for us," says Linda. "I want people to understand what these people have done to us and to everyone else."

Pat and Lilly Hoyne moved from Winona after their son Douglas was born with severe mental retardation caused by an environmentally linked chromosomal abnormality called trisomy chromosomal 15. The Hoynes lived around the corner from the Smileys. But there were plenty of injured children whose families couldn't afford to leave, such as Marti Williams, a nurse whose son has Elephant Man's disease, and Bianca Jones, who suffers from a painful skin disorder in which her skin sheds and leaves her complexion mottled.

Armed with a traveling photo exhibit of Winona's children, Glazer told anyone who would listen about their plight. Glazer knew how to tug the heartstrings, but she still could not spur government officials to act on their behalf. Everyone wanted proof that the plant caused these illnesses. In order to make that link, Glazer needed help from the state, but she received little assistance.

She wanted the Texas Department of Health to do an epidemiological study to determine the extent of the town's health problems in the area and how they compared with those in towns of similar size. The health department had its doctors review the plant's environmental data, but no such study was ever done, says Dr. John Villanacci, an epidemiologist with the state health department.

"It was impossible to determine if people were sicker here than elsewhere," he says. "We were dealing with mostly self-reported conditions--burning eyes, breathing difficulties. You look for commonalties with groups of people, a clustering of similar types of complaints, but we didn't have that here.

"It is always difficult to make a link between an illness and a toxic pollutant," he adds. "You want to look at what type of air contaminants someone was exposed to and how much. But the company lacked air-monitoring devices, so there was a paucity of data. All we could do was look at the facts, and we probably didn't have enough of them."

The doctor's comments make Glazer fume. "There were plenty of facts, but no one bothered to come here and look at them," she says. "In one black neighborhood alone, 35 people suffered from cancer. Tumors were rampant in children and animals." (Video footage Glazer took shows a hideously deformed cow and a German shepherd with a tumor the size of a basketball dangling between his hind legs. She lost several of her own ranch animals to brain cancer and kidney disease.)

Dr. Marvin Legator also takes issue with the health department's approach to the problems in Winona. A professor and director of the division of environmental toxicology at the University of Texas-Galveston, Legator says, "You'd anticipate a smorgasbord of illnesses in this situation because the people were exposed to so many different chemicals. All you can say is that this is a sick community compared to a community without exposure. There's no question that it is difficult to document. But there is no question you can do it. The National Academy of Sciences calls it a symptoms survey."

Many of the chemicals treated at the plant are known to cause reproductive problems, cancer, and brain damage, Legator says. "If you know these people were exposed to hazardous chemicals, and you know what these chemicals can do, isn't that enough?"

The failure of the plant to maintain adequate records contributed to the shortage of data. It is almost impossible to know exactly how much waste the plant accepted each year, because of serious lapses in the company's record keeping. According to the plaintiffs' lawyers, records they've uncovered show, for instance, that the plant received 3,400 tons of waste from one particular company, but that company's records show it only shipped 900. When the lawyers checked the records of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, there is no record of the company's shipping anything. It's equally difficult to know what the residents were exposed to on any given day. For example, the company's internal tracking systems were so poor, the plaintiffs' lawyers could not find what substances were in the tanks at the time of the 1991 explosion that emitted the cloud that spooked Glazer.

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